You can’t touch this!
A velvet rope, an artfully placed teasel on a chair, a sign, a volunteer in a high visibility vest… the ways that heritage sites stop people going or touching where they shouldn’t are myriad. Often imposed for very good reasons, such as to protect fragile objects and building fabric, and for the health and safety of visitors, these barriers can provoke some serious interest in what goes on behind them.
Museums and sites have various ways to show visitors ‘behind the rope’ on Heritage Open Days. Quite a few sites last year ran popular ‘behind the scenes’ tours to make the most of this interest, which can be a particularly good way to show off archives, as for instance at The Treasure House in Beverley and at Cambridgeshire Archaeological Archives.
Touching the past
Having a good handling collection that people can touch whilst looking around can really help to bring history to life, letting people find out what highly tactile leather wallpaper or wood carvings really feel like. A handling collection could be made up of replicas of items too fragile to be physically touched, and real objects that are either pretty hard wearing or of which there are a number represented within the collections, such as some coins or pottery sherds relating to the site. Loads of sites do this, and it can be great for children. There is a great blog on this by Zoe Potter here. If your site has any features of which rubbings can be taken, such as grave stones and carvings, this can make a good fun activity too!
Bringing in replica furniture for people to sit on, as was done at Longthorpe Tower near Peterborough, can give people somewhere to sit down whilst giving them an idea of what the building would have looked like at the time. Setting a table with a full replica banquet also helps to bring the real smells and tastes of the time and make the site really evocative.
Getting behind the scenes can happen all year round, as it is this June in Peterborough at Peterborough Museum and is great for sites who have recently undergone restoration, as they can explain why certain paint is the colour it is and why rooms have been laid out in a certain way. Managers of heritage sites shouldn’t underestimate the interest people have in stores, cellars (especially if haunted!), attics and objects that are out of view, especially on Heritage Open Days!