Pulling The Plug On Nighttime Programs

Programming comes to life when living history interpreters enter each room to welcome guests. Photos Courtesy Of Don Sweeney, FCPA

Programming comes to life when living history interpreters enter each room to welcome guests.

Photos Courtesy Of Don Sweeney, FCPA

Imagine planning a nighttime event in the winter without supplying heat or electricity. Instead, the Sully Historic Site in Virginia creates a holiday spirit, setting the house aglow with flickers of light that make visitors want to kick up their heels and join the shadows dancing on the walls.

The one-time home of Richard Bland Lee, Northern Virginia’s first representative to Congress, provides an opportunity to portray life as it was lived in the early 1800s. Since the Fairfax County Park Authority’s (FCPA) obligation is to preserve Lee’s house (not update it), the staff members rely on fresh interpretive ideas to keep attracting visitors. This approach comes through careful selection and a presentation of themes that change seasonally and—on one special occasion—according to light.

Exploring the house at Sully only during daylight park hours doesn’t tell the whole story because the folks who originally lived there were at home at night, too. To extend an interpretation of the house to those evening hours, the FCPA annually hosts several candlelight tours during the December holiday season. The programs present 18th-century life at night and pull double duty by interpreting Christmas customs of several different periods during the house’s occupancy. The low light of evening heightens the senses, and in that soft light the rich and glossy stair rails and the silver displays shine, the blue and white china glows, and the aromas from the kitchen seem more inviting.

When visitors stroll into the historic house, they pass from room to room, and  meet costumed characters of a past century involved in typical activities of that day—reading, cooking, sewing, and so forth. Guests are welcomed, and conversation rather than a lecture begins.

Past experiences have taught staff members that rooms with decorations and antiques without interpreters make a program quiet and sterile. Programming comes to life when living history interpreters enter each room to welcome guests.

The program is conducted by candlelight because that’s the way Lee’s family lived. Candlelight also creates a leisurely, engaging, personal mood and experience. Visitors are an active part of the experience rather than merely an audience watching a performance.

In addition to the site’s regular docents, creativity in Sully’s candlelight program flourishes through the use of outside experts, people who have expertise in history, architecture, the Lee family, period clothing, candle making, or period cooking. They contribute not only information but a sense of gathering and community. They also are volunteers—absolutely essential elements for success. Sully’s program could not exist without them.

New Challenges Await Outside

Over the years, the program has been so successful that it is now heading outdoors to the house’s surrounding 120 acres. The site has an excellent array of preserved outbuildings—a kitchen with open-hearth cooking, a laundry, a connecting walkway, a smokehouse, a dairy, and a representative slave cabin.

The challenge is that, at night in December, not many people want to linger outside or tour unheated facilities. Sully staff members quickly learned to make cold-weather adjustments. The site’s representative

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