UMass Boston students bring Boston’s tourist sites to the classroom

UMass Boston’s Campus Center and University Hall.

In a world without a global pandemic, students in "AMST 250: U.S. Travel and Tourism" would spend the semester studying the history and development of tourism in the classroom while going out and observing those dynamics for themselves at Boston’s tourist sites. Due to the remote nature of the course this semester, students have had the unique opportunity of having the tourism dynamic brought to them over Zoom, as seven guests from popular tourist sites in the Boston area came to class in order to be interviewed by students for their Boston Tourism Project at the end of the semester.

Taught by American Studies professor Bonnie Miller, this class exists as part of a cohort of courses funded by the Mellon Foundation aimed at demonstrating to students how humanities courses can train them for productive careers. This was demonstrated in the wide range of roles represented by the professionals who came to share about their experiences in the tourism field. The guest speakers included Kristin Peszka, Interpretation and Guest Services Director for the Paul Revere House; Evan O’Brien, Creative Manager of the Boston Tea Party and Ship Museum; Donna Curtin, Executive Director of the Pilgrim Society and Pilgrim Hall Museum; Michael Maler, Site Manager of three properties, including the Otis House, for Historic New England; Bethany Dorau, Regional Site Manager of 11 sites, including the Spencer-Peirce Little Farm, also for Historic New England; Molly Phelps, Academic Programs Manager at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum; and Matt Wilding, Director of Visitor Experience at the Old State House and the Old South Meeting House.

Students completed their projects by meeting in small groups to plan interview questions for one of the seven guests. These guests presented to their assigned group about their own job experience as well as the history and goals for their tourist site. Then, students asked their questions, including how they chose their career path, highlights of the site, who their target demographics were, what challenged they have faced, and how the pandemic has affected their institutions. After the interviews, students worked in groups to design group presentations on their site based on their research and the information they learned from their assigned speaker to give to the class as a whole.

A highlight from the presentations was the way that each tourism site caters its appeal to particular audiences. Historic sites like the Paul Revere House gain most of their visitors from school field trips and international tourists, and they’ve been able to appeal to that audience by creating resources for teachers along with a blog and radio show about the house. Students noted that visitors often are not the locals who live in the North End of Boston. In contrast, Maler noted that the visitors to the Otis House are primarily locals from the West End of Boston, as the site is lesser known. This provides them with a unique opportunity to make the house an experience the local community will want to visit repeatedly. Another site concerned with local visitors is the Spencer-Peirce Little Farm, as students explained that one of the most exciting aspects of the site is the ways they have been able to partner with local organizations and nonprofits to provide after-school volunteer work for kids on the farm and host events for the community. This discussion relates to one of the course objectives of helping students develop an ethnographic understanding of tourism’s relationship to both people and place.

A factor in the audience discussion was how the last year of COVID-19 has affected the tourism industry and shaped the future of these sites. Places like the Paul Revere House and the Boston Tea Party Ship and Museum have suffered greatly from the lack of visitors, with the latter shutting down twice and laying off 25 percent of employees for a time. Similarly, the Pilgrim Hall Museum in Plymouth, Mass. was only open for six weeks in 2020 and has faced related funding issues from the lack of visitors. Many of these sites have turned to virtual options as an alternative to in-person visits, with updated websites and new ideas for how to use their space to appeal to visitors in a post-pandemic world.

This assignment also gave students the opportunity to see tourism as a multi-faceted career option. As O’Brien explained to students, he was a theatre major in college with a passion for performance and only realized his love for history after graduating. In his work at The Boston Tea Party and Ship Museum, he’s able to merge a love for history and the performing arts in a place that ends up being a stepping stone for other performers to begin their career. At the Pilgrim Hall Museum, Curtin’s job includes everything from finances, to development, to the presentation of the exhibits due to the nature of it being a small operation. As Professor Miller noted, having to be a jack of all trades can be a positive and interesting aspect of a career in the tourism industry.

Interviewing these practitioners gave students the opportunity to engage directly with these professionals in the Boston tourist and museum culture scene in order to learn about this potential job pathway. With this, they got a behind-the-scenes look at what the work of public history, culture and the arts is all about. Through this exciting project and the class as a whole, students have gained a deeper understanding of the history of tourism and its cultural, social, ethical and economic dynamics, as well as the possibilities and challenges of the labor of conveying Humanities content to the general public. 

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