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Rethinking Historic House Tours

Question - What is the most common type of museum in the US? The answer is the historic house museum. An estimated 15,000 operating in the US today and because there are so many the chances are high that there is one within driving distance of your community or school. Despite this, many educators are reluctant to utilize them as learning resources, and with good reason. They are boring and tend to be narrowly focused. Sorry, but it’s the truth, and I’m not the only person who thinks so.

Franklin Vagnone and Deborah Ryan who wrote Anarchists Guide to House Museums also agree that many of these historic homes will close or become irrelevant unless they - and we - rethink how we engage with them as learning resources.

With that in mind, here are 7 ideas for how you can use the historic house in your community in service of authentic and deep learning using Edgar Allen Poe NHS as an illustrative example. You can see how the house and its rooms look here -

Then and Now - students select some aspect of the house, or its contents to focus on (clothes, kitchen gadgets, farm tools, etc) and trace the evolution of that aspect from the time the home tour was set to the present day. (ex. Poe's home was exclusively heated by fireplaces and lit by candles for most of his life. How have heating and lighting technology changed since his day?)

Layout Analysis - students on the tour take note of the layout of the home and identify the functions of each room. They then create a proposal to update the home so it can meet modern needs or incorporate the old elements into a new design that is more in line with modern needs. (ex. Many of the rooms in Poe's home were bedrooms, but other areas, like the ground floor and basement were underutilized. How would your students change the way in which rooms were used? If it was just Poe and his wife, what might Poe have done with the other rooms?)

If These Walls Could Talk - students write a short play or one-act that takes place within the home at different times in the homes life. The play could focus on how the residents of the home would have reacted to events going on outside during the time period or integrate new technologies as they appear in the home such as electricity or different appliances. (ex. What if Poe discovered his house was haunted? What if Poe's ghost haunted the house and its future residents? How would they interact?)

Back in Time - Students research the daily lives of kids their age in the time period the home is set in. They do this prior to the house tour so they can look for connections, ask questions, and share their conclusions at the end. (ex. One example is when Poe lived in Philadelphia during the height of its industrialization which changed the lives of children immensely since they could now more easily earn a wage. Students could reflect on their own experiences with work and earning money and compare it.)

Journal Tour - prior to the tour students are each given excerpts from the writings of one of the homes residents (diary/letters/etc) which they read during the appropriate times (e.g. reading about a memorable dinner when in the dining room) Students then write their own entry at the end of the tour about a memorable experience they had this week in their own homes. (ex. Many of Poe's family wrote letters back and forth that give insights into this life. These writings could be shared at different times on the tour depending on what the guide shares -

Relevance Audit - Using the Field Trip guide from Monuments Lab, students critically assess and discuss the museums accessibility and relevance. They think of themes or focuses for tours that might improve the experience, write them up, and offer them to the house museum -

Tour Builder - after your students take the tour, brainstorm ideas for deeper research pieces related to the house. (ex - deep dives into Poe's work, the tragedies in his life like the death of his wife, his different military postings, or his own mysterious death would all be good examples) -


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