How do interpreters bring real stories from the past to life for visitors? Behind the Bars features costumed volunteers portraying real prisoners and staff members from the Huron Historic Gaol’s (181 Victoria St./Highway 21, Goderich, ON) past. Summer Museum Assistant and Behind the Bars coordinator Madelaine Dunbar-HIggins offers a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the historical research and collaborative efforts between staff and volunteers that make the Huron Historic Gaol’s popular night tours an unforgettable experience for visitors.
You can visit! Tuesday and Thursday nights in July and August 7pm-9pm. Entrance until 8pm.
“Behind the Bars” is an interactive evening tour that has been held at the Huron Historic Gaol for over a decade. The event started as a personalized tour by a summer student portraying a former gaoler, and has flourished into a self-guided tour with over 20 volunteers. The tours take place Tuesday and Thursday nights throughout the summer, and are the only chance to visit the gaol outside of regular daytime hours.
Planning for the event takes a lot of thought and organization. A call for volunteers to is put out in early May. Museum Staff conduct brief interviews with new volunteers to get a sense of their personality and interest in acting before they are assigned to a character. All of the prisoners and staff members portrayed in Behind the Bars are based on true stories, gathered from the gaol registry, archival materials, newspapers, and other gaol documents. Volunteers are given a character “story” rather than a script, which is basically a general biography of their character, including information about their crime and the gaol during their time period.
The way the volunteers portray their character and interact with visitors is entirely up to them, whether this is begging for sympathy from visitors and playing the innocent card, or revealing truths about their crimes. Character stories are sent out to actors in mid to late June, and short training sessions are held early in July; these short meetings involve discussion about the event itself, the “how-to” for playing a historic character, and some fun facts about the gaol (by the way: g-a-o-l and j-a-i-l are pronounced the same way!).
The dress rehearsal night is the volunteers’ first chance to practice their stories in front of real visitors. The free-invite to various community groups on dress rehearsal night in early July is a great kick-start to the event! Not surprisingly, the event’s most effective advertising method is word of mouth, but we also make use of social media, radio, newspapers, posters, and our road sign on highway 21 to promote the event.
The main goal of Behind the Bars is to portray the inmates and the history of the building as accurately as possible, in keeping with the period of its operation from 1841 to 1911 (closed in 1972). The gaol was built in 1841 and designed by Thomas Young. The layout is panopticon in style, meaning “all seeing”. In 2014, Behind the Bars brought over 1,100 visitors to the Huron Historic Gaol. So far in 2015, we have had over 800 visitors. Be sure to add our event to your summer schedule!
**Visit us on Tuesday and Thursday evenings all summer long, between 7 and 9 PM!