Contributed by Rebecca Martin who has worked at the Litchfield Historical Society and the National Archives

I know that hands-on, multi-sensory experiences really do make a lasting impression on visitors, that these experiences really can create a powerful learning environment.  And my friends know this too: recently, when I was chatting with colleagues from several museums about our favorite visits to historic sites, I noticed that just about every person mentioned some sort of interactive component to their “best visit.”

I don’t need to convince you; as a reader of this blog, you’re likely already a fan of learning theory, multiple intelligences, participatory learning. . . So how do we make sure that we incorporate as much interactivity into our museum exhibitions and live interpretation as we can?

As with everything else that we do, we start with our message.  We make sure that we know what we want people to understand or to be able to do as a result of visiting this exhibition, participating in this activity, etc.  A great interactive reinforces the message of the exhibition or helps visitors reach a deeper level of understanding.  It’s fun, is thought-provoking, actually works, and won’t fall apart.  It also requires a substantial investment of time and thought from staff.

What’s stopping us from including more interactivity in our museums?

The Columbus Art Museum (Columbus, Ohio) invites visitors to create their own sculptures out of an everyday object–twist ties. Requiring only twist ties, table space, chairs, and pedestals for displaying the sculptures, the activity engages visitors of all ages.

They’re too expensive

So you don’t have the cash for custom-built, computer-based interactives or custom-designed and made-to-order manipulatives.  Don’t give up!

Well-conceived, message-focused low-tech hands-on activities can be just as engaging as their more expensive cousins.  And they often can be constructed on a shoestring budget with easy-to-find materials.  What’s more, low-tech interactives can often be developed, fabricated, and installed in a relatively short amount of time.

They’re just for kids

Everyone–adults and children–learns better and has the potential to have more fun when they have a chance to participate. In fact, museums are one of the places where adults can feel free to be playful and creative.  Adults may already be using any hands-on activities that you have in place.  Walk through your spaces and discreetly watch adults without children to see how they behave.  (I think of this as the “lurking” style of evaluation.)  I discovered while working at the Litchfield Historical Society that even on days when no children visited, every one of our interactives was used.

We can make it more comfortable to for adults to engage with interactives by making sure that our labels don’t metaphorically scream “this is for children only” through their colors, graphics, and language.  And we can make sure–if we want adults to feel welcome–that we provide some grown-up sized seats at activity stations. 

Get inspired!

As you visit museums yourself, you’re likely to find a lot of inspiration.  Here are some interactives that have impressed me and some I’ve made that I’m proud of.

  • squeezable round condiment bottles that had a scent inside (Florence Griswold Museum, Old Lyme, Conn.)
  • a wagon seat and reins, complete with instructions on how to drive a team of horses (Mercer Museum, Doylestown, Penn.)
  • a short row of high school-type lockers that opened to information on US presidents’ school days (National Archives, Washington, DC)
  • a set of muslin bags filled fragrant with herbs and spices (Litchfield Historical Society, Litchfield, Conn.)
  • a basket of reproduction items that mirrored items in a period room (Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, Harrodsburg, Kent.)

Check back in a few months for a post about materials and techniques for fabricating interactives.

In conjunction with a quilt exhibition, the Litchfield Historical Society (Litchfield, Conn.) offered visitors the opportunity to experiment with designs of their own at this velcro board.