Drop That Guidebook and Grab a DVD
New video tours reveal the history that's hidden at Drayton Hall.
By Stephanie Joy Smith | From Preservation | July/August 2008
We've all done it—picked up a brochure at a historic house or museum, and walked the grounds wishing we had a personal tour guide. Now it seems that the staff at Drayton Hall, the National Trust historic site near Charleston, S.C., heard us.
For the first time, visitors can rent a DVD player loaded with a documentary about the site, whose c. 1738 house is the oldest surviving example of Georgian-Palladian architecture in the country. Produced by The History Channel, "The Voices of Drayton Hall" chronicles Drayton's evolution from working rice plantation, to industrial operation where calcium phosphate was mined, to bucolic country retreat. Drawings, documents, and archival footage previously unavailable to the public help visitors make sense of the property's rich history.
"The house here has survived relatively intact," says Craig Tuminaro, director of museum interpretation for Drayton Hall, "but the land around it changed quite significantly." This innovative video project "tells the history of this place through people who knew the property."
Intended as a companion to guided tours of the house, the DVD leads viewers to 11 stops on the grounds, describing the vanished structures that stood there, and unveiling telltale clues still visible in the landscape.
The most moving parts of the presentation are interviews with members of the Drayton family and descendants of the slaves who toiled there. Tuminaro points to a scene in which Rebecca Campbell describes her first visit to the plantation where her forebears were enslaved. "I felt the pains and agony of my ancestors," she says on the DVD. "I feel like I have a place at Drayton Hall to tell their story."
You can also listen to Anne Drayton Nelson, who appears with her father, 89-year-old Charles H. Drayton, tearfully describing her relatives' decision to sell the home that the family owned for seven generations.
The DVD was funded in part by the state of South Carolina. Officials view it as a prototype. If successful, similar technology can be used to enhance visitors' experiences at sites in the South Carolina National Heritage Corridor and elsewhere. Tuminaro says that Drayton Hall embraced this approach because handheld players are easy to use and maintain, and allow visitors to focus on their own areas of interest. Also, unlike individual audio tours, portable DVD players permit groups to watch "The Voices of Drayton Hall" together and talk about what they have seen.
Nelson hopes that the DVD will help visitors learn more about American history and come away with a greater appreciation of the connections between the past and present. "So many people don't understand history," she says. "It's isolated information. It's not woven together in a tapestry. This DVD presents the story in a new and fascinating way."
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