By Shih-Chun Tseng
Unlike traditional historic sites or historic house museums, President Lincoln’s Cottages does not include a full recreation of an historic interior. Instead of focusing on architecture or decorative arts, President Lincoln’s Cottage focuses on presenting Lincoln’s beliefs, ideas and his personal life at the Soldiers’ Home where he lived for one quarter of his presidency. The simply furnished rooms set the stage, and diverse media and highly trained interpretive staff enhance the signature Cottage tour for visitors.
While audio and visual media play a role in the tour experience, interpreters may customize and personalize their tours, rather than rattling off stories like a recording. This personal passion can foster great chemistry between the interpreter and visitors. Thus, under an interpretive framework, our interpreters are encouraged to engage visitors in the important points and stories through their own unique approach and style. I recently had the opportunity to follow tours to see two interpreters in action to compare style. While there are similarities in style and certainly shared content, subtle differences in emphasis can mean a huge difference for the visitor experience.
For example, a museum studies background shapes Shira’s interpretation. Museum professionals believe that real objects (including buildings) provide important connections for visitors. Shira places emphasis on objects in the Cottage and features of the Cottage, such as the aged wooden rail of Lincoln’s time, to create tangible links to the stories. When the visitors ascended the stairs, they seemed excited to put their hands on the rail, the experience of touching of the old wood led some to imagine that they were shaking hands with President Lincoln. Moreover, Shira is good at using objects to bring people back to Lincoln’s era, for example, the act of rocking a rocking chair created a dramatic picture that made it seem as if we could see President Lincoln sitting in that room, having an impatient conversation with a surprise guest after a long, exhausting day.
As a student of Lincoln and history, Niles impressed his tour group by placing the stories of the Cottage in the comprehensive context of the Civil War. He used images to illustrate the political and military situation, pointing out major battles and describing the Border States’ issues. When discussing the critical role that the Emancipation Proclamation played during the Civil War, Niles presented a clear explanation of the cause of the Civil War. The Union and the Confederacy had their own interpretations of human rights based on the founding documents of the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. While the differences were a root cause of the conflict, Lincoln worked through the solution over time, here in the Cottage, and managed to maintain the United States as one nation.
Consider visiting with your family and friends again and again, with the inimitable interpretation styles and approaches, the great interpreters at President Lincoln’s Cottage will bring you something a bit different each and every time.