Virginia’s Stratford Hall sits on 1900 acres and showcases an interpretation timeline spanning 15 million years. Even with an awesome history and an equally impressive collection, Stratford Hall struggled with getting audiences to engage with the museum. Since then, Stratford Hall has introduced an innovative new tour series called “Geek Tours,” revolutionizing audience engagement with its collection. They have also embraced technology and its myriad of possibilities.
We had a chat with Abigail Newkirk, Director of Interpretation & Education. Her job is to see Stratford through the eyes of the visitor and to work with her talented coworkers to tell the amazing stories of Stratford Hall.
MH: Tell us about your background and how you got involved with Stratford Hall.
AN: To make a long story less long…I started volunteering at the Children’s Museum of Portsmouth (now Children’s Museum of New Hampshire) in high school to boost my college application and was later hired as a floor manager. I never looked back. I went to Colby College (Waterville, ME) and earned a BA in Historyand Classical Civilization. I also had the opportunity to study abroad in Greece…amazing! I worked at the US Navy Memorial Foundation and the International Spy Museum in Washington, DC. I enrolled at the International Center for Cultural and Heritage Studies at Newcastle University (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK) where I did a placement at Fountains Abbey & Studley Royal and lived in their deer park. After graduatingwith a MA in Museum Studies, I worked at the Lockwood-Mathews Mansion Museum (Norwalk, CT) and the Sewall-Belmont House & Museum (Washington, DC). About five years ago (time flies!) an opportunity opened up at Stratford Hall and I moved to the Northern Neck to head the Interpretation & Education Department. The reason I go through all this is because I am not an expert in 18th century Virginia history. Every place I have worked focused on a different subject or period of history. My job is to see Stratford through the eyes of the visitor and to work with my amazing/talented co-workers to tell our story. I have been a museum kid for as long as I can remember and I want to make sure our visitors leave Stratford with great memories.
MH: Tell us about the Geek Tour. How did you get the idea, and what’s the goal of it? How did you decide on the content, etc. (I love the “Going to the Bathroom” section..)
AN: Going to the bathroom is an important thing to talk about! The Geek Tour developed out of an idea I had with our Curator, Gretchen Pendleton. We joked that we should have a YouTube Channel called “Geeking Out with Gretchen and Abby” because we tend to get really excited about really random things.
Gretchen had once encountered a tour group and described all the things we could learn from a carpet fiber that was found stuck to a tack in our Parlor. By the end of the tour, the group thought it was the Holy Grail because her enthusiasm was contagious. We thought it would be fun for our visitors (and us) to create an entire tour about the things we love. For the record, all we learned was that the carpet fiber was wool. We were hoping for an indication of color. The reproduction carpet is still amazing and we filmed the whole installation for the Geek Tour.
The Geek Tour features a lot of things that just do not fit anywhere else, so it is a chance to tell the stories that never get told. We also want to be able to interpret some of our spaces in transition. We are in the midst of major restoration projects, so the rooms are constantly changing,and we are learning new things. I watched distemper paint dry the other day and I filmed a plaster cornice installation. We can make new videos, upload them to the app, and change the tour. Toursphere provides a way to update the tour.
I loved The Participatory Museum by Nina Simon. One of the ways I describe the Geek Tour comes from her book: this is our version of the staff picks shelf at a bookstore.
The process is pretty simple: I ask my co-workers what they want to talk about, they record the audio, I/we collect the media, and then I edit a video. I try to influence the content as little as possible because it is them talking to the visitor. I asked Gretchen what she wanted to talk about and she said that she wanted to do something about going to the bathroom. Our Director of Research wanted to record something about drinking. I love my co-workers! I am also very aware of the demands put on their time, so I try to make it as easy as possible.
MH: What has the general reaction to the Geek Tour been? Has it changed the way people experience the space?
AN: We have not had the full roll-out yet, but it will be this spring. The staff has loved testing the app and learning new things because we have done a lot of research for this new content. My Board of Directors tried the app for the first time last week and they loved the Geek Tour. I talked about the Geek Tour at MCN this past year and many museum professionals loved the idea and the attitude behind the tour, so I am very excited to see what the public thinks.
MH: Can you tell us a little about the Robert E Lee House and what you love about it?
AN: I love all that we can talk about at Stratford Hall. We have 1900 acres of land and an interpretation timeline that spans from 15 million years ago (we have Miocene Epoch cliffs) to what we are doing today. Much of what we do focuses on the Lee family (1738-1820). Two signers of the Declaration of Independence (Richard Henry Lee and Francis Lightfoot Lee) grew up here and Robert E. Lee spent the first four years of his life at Stratford, but there is so much more. The mobile apps are giving us the opportunity to do so much more.
On a professional level, I love that we are willing to try something new. Having the freedom to experiment with interpretation styles makes my job so much more fun.
MH: How do you keep your audience fresh? Do you have a lot of repeat visitors? How do you get the word out?
AN: This is one of the things we are working on right now. Using different storytelling methods and using technology are two of the ways we are hoping to engage new audience segments. Families and young professionals are two groups we are actively working on right now. Millennials are surpassing the Boomer generation in population this year according to the Pew Research Center. I have been a strong advocate for reaching out to new audience segments because we will fall victim to the falling museum attendance trend.
We do have a lot of repeat visitation and word of mouth is our best advertisement. I just want to make sure that when people visit us again, they are able to learn/do something new. This was why we called the tour (re)discover Stratford. Some people will discover Stratford for the first time while others will rediscover Stratford.
MH: You seem to be doing a lot of cool things with digital engagement. Can you talk about that?
AN: We are using technology as a way to enrich the story, give visitors more control over their experience, and to bring so many stories to the public. There is no way we can tell everything in a 45 minutes guided tour…but the mobile app is allowing us to make the information available and the visitor can choose what they wish to consume…or return another day…or ignore it completely.
There is always fear with change. We know that not everything will work, so that is an accepted aspect of this experiment that is accepted on all levels. We also know that we are not trained digital content producers, so we are focusing on the stories and not a polished video clip. Our landscape app (n-compass) will allow the visitor to record audio stops and add them to the tour, so there is the loss of control of the message. I am so excited to see what interests the visitor enough to hit the record button.
History and learning should be fun (even if the content is often serious). I can’t remember where I heard this, but it is so true: no one comes here for college credit (except maybe college group tours). Visitors are…looking to learn something, but we also know they are looking for experiences and to build memories. Most of us in the museum field are here because we love museums and learning (at least I hope so because we are not here for the money!). I think that when we are just not taking ourselves too seriously all the time it is more fun for us as staff and visitors.
Special thanks to Ethan Angelica who interviewed Abigail Newkirk for Museum Hack. Want to see more posts like this? Subscribe to our mailing list. Do you work for a museum? Do you have a program that is successfully engaging new audiences? We’d love to hear about it! Send us an email. Click this link If you’d like to read more about our workshops, presentations, and museum consulting work.