A Historic House Museum Doing Everything Right

We all have our museum bucket lists–places that we desperately want to visit.  Sometimes, it’s because of an admiration for whoever’s home it was. (See Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House). Sometimes it’s due to its place in a favorite book (See Green Gables). Sometimes it’s because you admire the work that they’re doing (See the Pittsburgh Children’s Museum). Sometimes it’s amazing, grandiose architecture (see Biltmore). Last week, I got to cross another museum off the list: the birthplace and home of Juliette Gordon Low in Savannah.

Yes, as a matter of fact, I was a Girl Scout.  I was part of the very first group of Daisys (for kindergarten age girls), and my mom was our leader.  Like many, our troop fell apart in Junior High, but I continued to be a member, helping out with some younger troops that met at our church.  I never pursued the Silver Award or Gold Award, but I kept my membership up through graduation.  And through all of that, I wanted to visit Savannah and see Daisy’s house.

It was pouring rain when we arrived, so the carriage house was pretty crowded.  We were a group of 5 (my parents, myself and family friends D&S), and only mom and I were looking forward to the tour. D&S kept asking “Now, it’s not just a big museum about Girl Scouts, right?” And I kept saying “It’s a beautiful historic house that was the founder’s home.  So yes, there will be stuff about Girl Scouts, but it’s also a fancy house tour in Savannah.” (they really wanted to see fancy houses). When the next available tour wasn’t for an hour, the companions weren’t happy at all. So I went back to the ticket desk and asked if we could move our tickets to the next day.  We couldn’t but she happily gave me a refund.

Historic House Win #1: The staff at the front desk was incredibly gracious, helpful and nice.  Even though I was totally “that customer.” And this continued throughout all of our interactions with various staff members.

After all this, mom and I told the rest of the group that we were absolutely fine if they didn’t join us the next day on the tour. But that we were going No Matter What. At the last minute, they decided to join us.  The next morning, we headed back and were able to get tickets on the first available tour. We had a little time to kill, and D&S walked the neighborhood while I chatted with the director, Lisa.  She and I were on an IMLS panel review last summer, and she had taken the job at Low about six months ago.  I don’t know her super well, so was hesitant to say to frontline staff “Hey, I know your director. Is she available?” But I’m so glad we did!  We got recommendations for afternoon activities and dinner, plus it was good to hear more about the behind-the-scenes. Lisa mentioned that she came into an organization with an incredible team that was ready for change–and this became even more evident as we met more of her staff.

I knew the tour was off to a great start when the guide, Michael, asked our group “How many of you are Girl Scouts?” Most raised their hand. And then he said “This is your house.” And that was fundamentally the attitude throughout the tour.

Historic House Win #2: The museum clearly approaches their visitors with an attitude of trust: there were no ropes or barriers. On the second floor, we were allowed to wander freely after hearing the basics. It was incredible.

 

Historic House Win #3: Though the kids and their questions came first, there was a wonderful balance for everyone in the group. This is so hard to do, and I applaud them for it. D&S were dreading going on a tour with a troop of Girl Scouts, but they later said that part of what made it so special was the presence of the kids.

 

Historic House Win #4: It felt like a real home. Part of it was that so many of Daisy’s things are still in the collection–and she had a pretty strong personality! And of course, part of it was the lack of barriers. But again, it was also the attitude of our tour guide. He asked if anyone would like to play the piano in the formal parlor. No one raised their hand, but then we asked if he would play for us (we may have been told to do this by his coworkers). And he sat down and played, and it was one of the most magical moments I’ve ever had in a house museum.

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Historic House Win #5: They aren’t afraid to play with tradition. About a year ago, they transformed the library into a hands-on learning space. It includes some real artifacts, but the centerpieces is this amazing table filled with lots of different activities. Of course, I’m a sucker for anything to do with books, so I fell head over heels in love with the space. It’s the last stop on the tour, so you can spend as much time as you like in that space. The girls on the tour seemed to love it too–and they were still there long after we left.

This historic house museum was on my bucket list because of my childhood admiration for Juliette Gordon Low.  I had no idea how much it would inspire me today, in my grownup career as museum director. It is truly one of the best house tours I’ve been on in a very long time. Three cheers for the Girl Scouts!

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About Melissa

Professional history and museum nerd, among other things. I've worked at Dallas Heritage Village since 2004, first as the educator, and became Executive Director in 2014.
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12 Responses to A Historic House Museum Doing Everything Right

  1. Sean says:

    Thanks for the shout-out, Melissa! I’m the Interpretation Officer at Green Gables Heritage Place in PEI, and I’ve been following this blog for a while!

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  2. Sean says:

    Thanks for the shout-out Melissa! I’ve been following this blog for a while, and I’m the Interpretation Officer at Green Gables Heritage Place in PEI!

    Like

  3. lchistorical says:

    Congrats on an encouraging, supportive story. Come see us in Little Compton, RI. I don’t think we are doing “everything” right but the Wilbor House Museum is a pretty amazing space.

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  4. Melissa, our whole team was over the moon today when we discovered your thoughtful and in-depth review of the Birthplace! Thanks for taking time to write about your visit. We’re thrilled to hear what a meaningful experience you had there as a former Girl Scout, not to mention the ED of an historic site. We’re working hard to ensure that the Birthplace is filled with relevant content (and a few surprises) for all of our audiences, and from your review I’d say we are definitely on the right track.

    It was delightful to see you again and to meet your parents— thanks for taking a moment out of your vacation to say hello. I hope to get a chance to visit Dallas Heritage Village one day. Until our paths cross again– be well!

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    • Melissa says:

      I had on my to-do list for today to write you an email and let you know I had done this–but this post has gotten a lot more views than usual! Glad this made you happy–it’s always gratifying to hear good things about your museum.

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  5. Dear Melissa and Lisa,
    What an affirming posting about the JGLB and the great work in cultural stewardship and community building going on there. Thank you for sharing your response to the visionary museum. I had the pleasure of meeting Lisa Lopez while doing research at the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum (JAHHM) when she was working there with colleagues like Lisa Lee and Heather Radke.

    As a former Girl Scout myself, and a former Savannah resident too, I was thrilled to learn that Lisa Lopez had moved to the Juliette Low house. What a boon to learning by and about Scouts—and women leaders like Low.

    Also excited to learn about another museum enthusiast here in the Texas Metroplex, Melissa. I love the museums in our cultural district here in Fort Worth, where I work at TCU, but am always glad to network with others interested in public history and culture. Let’s stay in touch.

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  6. srobbinstcu says:

    Dear Melissa and Lisa,
    What an affirming posting about the JGLB and the great work in cultural stewardship and community building going on there. Thank you for sharing your response to the visionary museum. I had the pleasure of meeting Lisa Lopez while doing research at the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum (JAHHM) when she was working there with colleagues like Lisa Lee and Heather Radke.

    As a former Girl Scout myself, and a former Savannah resident too, I was thrilled to learn that Lisa Lopez had moved to the Juliette Low house. What a boon to learning by and about Scouts—and women leaders like Low.

    Also excited to learn about another museum enthusiast here in the Texas Metroplex, Melissa. I love the museums in our cultural district here in Fort Worth, where I work at TCU, but am always glad to network with others interested in public history and culture. Let’s stay in touch.
    http://eng.tcu.edu/faculty_staff/sarah-robbins/

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  7. Leigh Gordon Ashman says:

    I see what’s being done at the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace as a complete desecration of history. Visitors – Girl Scouts and tourists as well – don’t come to this House to play Scrabble games and use iPads. They come to see and savor the story of a woman ahead of her time. This is a travesty. And the historic side garden is also destined for the wrecking ball.

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    • Melissa says:

      Because people learn in so many different ways, I believe that museums should teach in a variety of ways–which is a big part of the reason I so appreciate what Low is doing, along with many other places. It won’t work for everyone, and that’s okay.

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  8. Mac Gordon says:

    My previous comment was deleted or unpublished?
    Just a thought that maybe not everybody thinks “re-imagining history” is a grand idea. It seemed like history does just fine without clever gimmicks to trick girls into caring about the past. If you want iPads and toys, stay home.
    I know museum folks stick together. Understood, but come on–be open to the fact mistakes get made. Too bad you never saw the library before it was ruined. Your loss.
    Mac Gordon, Great Nephew of JGL and unadorned history supporter.

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    • Melissa says:

      I don’t disagree that no everyone is in support of these changes. But I do believe we have to change and adapt the way we teach as we learn more about how people learn.

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