The StEPs logo, in which the letters of S-T-E-P-S are typed above a curved brush stroke that is lower on the left and higher on the right. Text below logo reads Standards and Excellence Program for History Organizations.

Webinar: Is Your Organization Ready for StEPs?

Assessment programs like AASLH’s StEPs program are road maps. They are a valuable tool for moving an organization forward along a path and helping paid and unpaid staff, volunteers, and board members stay focused as they travel together along that path toward a set of common goals.

Organizations that can connect planning and fundraising to an assessment program gain credibility. Funders like to know that your proposed project is based upon goals that are supported by an assessment program, and that your organization’s progress can be measured.

StEPs is a self-study assessment program open to any museum, historical society, historic house, site, or related organization. It is intended for small- and mid-sized organizations that do not feel ready for other assessment programs, but larger museums may find it useful for prioritizing and as a refresher checklist or training tool. Enrollment in StEPs is a one-time fee of $175 for institutional members of AASLH.

Is your organization ready for StEPs? Join us for this free, one-hour webinar to hear how StEPs can help your organization create a road map for meaningful change.

Note: This webinar is for organizations that are considering using the StEPs program. Organizations already enrolled in the program should register for the free webinar, “StEPs Welcome or Refresher" on June 19, 2019:



Date: May 1, 2019

Time: 3:00 – 4:00 pm Eastern (Please adjust for your timezone!)

Cost: Free for AASLH Members and Nonmember

Closed captioning available upon advanced notice. Please contact [email protected] for more information.

About the Instructor:

Cherie Cook is AASLH Senior Program Manager. Prior to joining the Association, Cherie worked with museums in Oklahoma for more than sixteen years, first as field services coordinator and then as executive director of the Oklahoma Museums Association. Much of Cherie’s work at AASLH focuses on smaller history organizations and is influenced not only by her years in Oklahoma but also her experience as a county historical society curator.

AASLH's 2016 Annual Report (PDF)

Here at AASLH, 2016 was a year of building upward and outward. In order to best share all the changes and growth, we've put together our first ever stand-alone Annual Report. You can read it using the PDF reader below or download the Annual Report using the link below:

Download the 2016 Annual Report


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AASLH New Member Orientation Webinar

Are you a new member of AASLH? Interested in AASLH membership? Eager to make the most of your important role in this community? Join AASLH staff for an interactive orientation on the services, programs, events, resources, and networking opportunities available to AASLH members. (Scroll down for more details)


Date: Decemeber 6, 2016

Time: 3pm EST

Cost: Free for AASLH Members and Nonmembers


Full Description of the Webinar:

Are you a new member of AASLH? Interested in AASLH membership? Eager to make the most of your important role in this community? Join AASLH staff for an interactive orientation on the services, programs, events, resources, and networking opportunities available to AASLH members.

As your home for history, we want to ensure you are getting the most value possible from your membership. This webinar will help you become more connected with the AASLH community and find out how we can support your practice of history. There will be plenty of time for any questions about AASLH or our services.

This webinar is free and open to all, but pre-registration is required. A recording of the webinar, slides, and notes will be sent to all registrants after the event.


About the Instructor:

web-headshot-9-200-wideHannah Hethmon is the Membership Marketing Coordinator at AASLH, where­—among other communication and marketing responsibilities— she runs all the official social media accounts. Before entering the public history/ museum field, she worked for eight years doing marketing, copywriting, and sales in the for-profit sector (primarily small businesses). In addition to a degree in English literature, she holds a master’s in medieval Icelandic history, philology, and manuscripts.


AASLH Aspirations

aaslh_tree_resource_thumbnailTo shape AASLH’s future, the Council and its Aspirations Task Force have outlined four key ideas. We are interested in knowing what you think. You can share your comments using the “Leave a Reply” box below or by emailing AASLH President & CEO John Dichtl or me.    

Over the summer, the AASLH Council organized the Aspirations Task Force, which includes representatives from Council, staff, the Leadership Nominating Committee, and the membership at large, to guide a strategic thinking process that is nimble, responsive, and open. The task force is working across committees and within Council, and is reaching out to the standing committees and to the membership at large for input.

I encourage you to share your ideas and comments today.

Katherine Kane
AASLH Aspirations Task Force Chair and Council Vice Chair

Executive Director
Harriet Beecher Stowe Center

Strategic Thinking about AASLH’s Future

The Aspirations Task Force leads AASLH’s strategic thinking process so that the Association reaches its goals, and can be nimble, responsive, and accountable. The task force is composed of individuals on Council, including the chair, vice chair and the president, and several members of AASLH at large. After initial brainstorming and analysis at the June 2015 Council meeting with the help of consultant Laura Roberts, the task force began drafting an aspirational philosophy statement as a touchstone for conversations with membership and in Council about the AASLH’s future. During the 2015 Annual Meeting in Louisville, the task force presented the version below and now seeks comments from AASLH members and others in the history community.

To achieve programmatic and service success and effectively lead the field, AASLH aspires to the following:

AASLH promotes the relevance of history:

  1. Insists on history rather than heritage, on the provocative rather than the palliative
  2. Identifies history as the essential shaper of the present and as context for each individual
  3. Recognizes history as always complex, often contested
  4. Promotes the methods of history and historical thinking

AASLH acts to build diversity and inclusiveness:

  1. Finds the creativity, the resources and the will to change (internally) and advances diversity and inclusiveness in the history field
  2. Recognizes and defines the inequities in the history/cultural profession and addresses them by dedicating intellectual, financial, emotional and structural resources for building a diverse and inclusive field
  3. Seeks to develop the capacity of member organizations and for itself to build relationships based on mutual trust, balance of power, and recognition of expertise within diverse communities to democratize the historical narrative and sustain the relevance of history organizations to a rapidly changing demographic
  4. Collaborates with organizations that have successfully developed inclusive policies and programming
  5. Encourages telling the stories that have not been told

AASLH cultivates an experimental and creative spirit within AASLH and among constituents and partners.

  1. Leads, models, and is a source for imaginative problem solving, openness, and resourcefulness, while also looking to other fields for inspiration
  2. Supports a culture of creativity and informed risk-taking in its programs and publications
  3. Encourages constituents and partners to create laboratories for new methods of attracting and engaging audiences, members, and funders, understanding that failure is an inherent part of experimentation
  4. Cultivates and supports knowledge-sharing among constituents and partners, encouraging honest reporting and analysis of programmatic and managerial experiments, so that we can all learn from each other's creative efforts, successes, and disappointments
  5. Models an adaptive and nimble, yet reflective, culture to address change and quickly take advantage of opportunities

AASLH increases its financial stability and builds trust

  1. States financial goals publicly, encourages questions, and meets those goals in a timely and organized fashion
  2. Acts transparently and consistently, focusing on outcome and process; by being transparent and consistent, membership and the larger community will see our motives and learn to rely on us
  3. Will be a role model for other non-profits in financial decisions, processes, and reporting


Empty Spaces: Interpreting without Furnishings at Gunston Hall

It was a balmy and hot day in July. Fear and anxiety were in the air as the moving truck slowly backed up to the land-side porch and door at George Mason’s Gunston Hall.  The professional art/antique movers were staged and ready. Packing materials were carefully organized. The truck stopped and the crunching of the gravel beneath the heavy tires of the 18-wheeler ceased. For a minute, all was quiet and then the large doors on the back of the trailer swung open, the metal ramp screeched out of its secure compartment, and the movers got to work.

Soon, the collections and furnishings slowly, carefully, methodically, and professionally began leaving the mansion.  One by one Mason’s writing table, the Mason family silver, the portrait of Mason and his wife, and hundreds of other artifacts and decorative arts left. Then the ramp slide back into its compartment, the doors closed, the gravel began to rattle again and the truck pulled away.  The entire move was over faster than we realized and then, emptiness.

Scott 2a

At first, we stood in silence. Wow, this was different. What were we going to do? How were we going to interpret this space, a space devoid of furnishings?

Much like when you arrive in a new place, or like a pet when you bring it home for the first time, we began walking through the house, checking out the space, following walls, peering into corners. There were no furnishings, no barriers—physical or mental—and soon, still mostly silent, we began to realize that although we had all been in Gunston Hall countless times, at that moment, everything about the space was brand new.

By virtue of walking on floors previously inaccessible, we heard new creaks, which when combined with the birds outside created a joyous and lively noise. Without barriers we looked through windows and saw views of the gardens the grounds previously impossible.  Without furnishings, our eyes were powerfully drawn to the details of design and craftsmanship previously unknown.  From every angle in every room, colors exploded off walls and each space burst with a vibrancy and energy offering perhaps the best perspective on Mason’s vision for his home.  Most interestingly, despite the lack of furnishings, our ability to walk through the entirety of every room and every space inside this glorious home created an intimacy and a sense of humanity which was both unexpected and unparalleled. It was truly an amazing experience!  Then, collectively, we all realized, what an opportunity, this is going to be great!

Scott 2

By way of explanation, the replacement of the eighty year old slate roof at Gunston Hall commenced in August 2014 and in preparation for this large project, we removed all the furnishings from the house. Leading up to the removal of the furnishings, we developed a plan for how we were going to interpret the mansion during the period of the roof replacement. We visited other historic homes which are interpreted without any or with only minimal furnishings. We trained staff and docents and we promoted this “once-in-a-life time” opportunity to our guests.

But, none of us really knew how it was going to work when the first tour or school group arrived. Equally important, none of us knew how the house, or how we, would feel when empty and when surrounded by the emptiness.

Well, as noted above, for us the experience was powerful, evocative, and impactful. The feeling was one of discovery, opportunity, and freedom. In many ways the interpretative space became a home again, even without furnishings, as one was able to intellectually move-in without any pre-scripted interruption.

All in all, it was very cool and while I am not recommending everyone go out and empty their home, the furnishings will be moving back in when the roof project is complete, I do encourage everyone to find opportunities and ways to provide this access and this experience. Overwhelmingly our guides and docents, who at first were largely unsure of how this would work embraced and enjoyed the house being empty. Several have even indicated that they prefer the house being empty. Perhaps most importantly, as evidenced the vast majority of our surveys, our guests loved the house being empty.

So, should find yourself staring at the back of a moving truck as your furnishings drive away, here are several things we ultimately did to leverage and capitalize on the opportunity.

  1. We placed one or two large format photos of each room during different time periods. These photos showed what the house looked like when furnished now, but also during different time periods in the past. The opportunity to stand in a space and compare settings was very popular and very impactful.
  2. We allowed and promoted the opportunity to take photographs in the house. We also implemented a photo contest which resulted in over 100 images. The top three images were used in our 2015 calendar.
  3. We hosted events, even with food and drink, in the house. These “open houses”, designed for specific groups of individuals like the local citizens association, attracted new guests and generated memberships and contributed income.
  4. We documented the spaces while empty, at different times and during different seasons, and now have photos of the empty space to use in future interpretative efforts.
  5. We piloted and experimented with interactive activities in the empty spaces.


These are just a few ideas that worked for us and I welcome your thoughts and ideas about how empty spaces enliven the experience in your historic house.



Why I LOVE Gunston Hall

When I was a young boy growing up in suburban Philadelphia, two of the things I loved most were baseball and history. Baseball_Baseball History_3

I loved watching my Phillies on TV, scouring packs of baseball cards for Phillies players, and reading box scores every morning in the newspaper. The players were my heroes and all of these activities allowed me to connect with my team in ways there were personal, but also communal because my family, friends, and neighbors also loved the Phillies.

The best part of this shared, yet personal experience was going to Veterans Stadium to see a game. I will never forget the feeling of the summer sun, the sight of the green Astroturf and the brown base paths, the smell of hot dogs, and the sounds of the organ, conversations among fans, and the ball either hitting a bat or pounding a glove.  It was magical as a child and is still magical for me as an adult, particularly now that I get to take my two daughters to the ballpark and share my love of baseball with each of them.

GunstonMy second, but certainly equal love was history.  In this case my heroes were trappers and fur traders of the west, explorers of the oceans and continents, Civil War generals, and the founders of our nation.  I clearly remember going to Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell and Franklin Court in Philadelphia, multiple battlefields throughout Maryland and Virginia, and countless museums and historic sites up and down the East Coast. What could be more fun!

I also read voraciously and enjoyed the complete set of the old Landmark Books series that covered a full range of fascinating historical topics.  As with baseball, these activities were deeply personal, but also communal because I experienced all of these amazing places with my family, and I remember this time as a family as much as I remember the exhibits and programs at the specific sites. Even the books had a communal element because I could not wait to share what I had read with anyone willing to listen, even if it was just the family cat.Bored_77f48c_153233

The difference between my love of baseball and my love of history, however, was that the baseball players and the action on the field was live and in the present.  My love of history and my ability to connect with my heroes of the past, therefore, relied on places like museums and historic sites, and, it depended on books.

Fast forward to July 8, 2013. It is my first day on the job as Executive Director of Gunston Hall.  I had been to Gunston Hall on several occasions before this day, but this day was different and it is also one I will never forget.

Turning off Gunston Road, I began driving up the entrance road.  The surrounding forest is almost mystical. I turn off NPR and even though it is hot, I roll down the windows of my truck. I even stop for a minute.  I hear an assortment of noises—birds, squirrels rustling on the forest floor, a slight breeze barely moving the canopy above.

45 landscape_3149 I continue driving and emerge from the forest. Before me, on either side, lay vast fields of green.  Several families of deer quietly enjoy breakfast, while also perking up at my presence.

As I slowly continue, driving over a slight crest, the very top of the mansion appears followed by a full view of this awe inspiring structure. The mansion is framed by towering cedars and magnolias, which serve to enhance the mansion’s majesty and also draw you closer both physically and emotionally.

Now I can literally feel the power and the presence of this place.  It is indescribable yet you can’t help but try because the power is so strong and so special.

After parking, I walk towards the mansion, drawn by the power of the place to get closer, to touch the brick, and I ascend the steps to the porches.  I don’t yet have keys, so after enjoying this vantage point, I walk around the mansion, meander through the boxwood gardens as I have read George Mason loved to do, and soak up the breath taking view of the river and forests below the ridge.

Later in the day, I go inside the mansion and then a new feeling overwhelms me. This place, this amazing place, is about more than a defining landscape, beautiful views, and an awe-inspiring structure. Once inside, despite the obvious grandeur of the architecture and craftsmanship, I am reminded that this place is about and defined by people, and that this place’s true power is derived through personal and communal connections with people.

And connections with stories.

Inside the Little Parlor as I look at the original furnishings I am awed by a connection to the place where Mason ran a vibrant plantation, where family occasionally dined, and perhaps most inspiring, the place where Mason contemplated and wrote the Virginia Declaration of Rights.  Upstairs, I can almost hear the same sounds of my household, children getting ready for the day, playing, and preparing for bed.  Back outside in the kitchen yard, I am confronted with the reality of slavery. I can feel the power associated with the toil of work by enslaved peoples. I feel the challenging irony of a place where visionary statements of freedom and equality were developed and expressed, but also a place that was home for close to 100 slaves.4 George

In thinking more about these feelings, I begin to comprehend why I love Gunston Hall.  First, this place is uniquely capable, at least for me, of re-connecting me with my childhood love of history and of reminding me, on a minute-by-minute basis, why I love history and why I am blessed to work as a museum professional.

But perhaps most importantly, as I watch guests—some families, some individuals, and some groups of friends—walk by my office window on their way to the mansion, I love Gunston Hall because of its diverse and compelling humanity.  This humanity is defined by stories of freedom and slavery, education and learning, family and community, citizenship and patriotism, entrepreneurialism and innovation, and by preservation and stewardship.  This humanity, and Gunston Hall, is also defined by passion and love. This is truly why the spirit and feel of this place is so powerful and so compelling.

These personal and communal connections, powerful feelings, and compelling human stories are why I love Gunston Hall--and why historic houses and sites remain so relevant and important today.  As you think about your love of such places, I would love to hear your stories of your favorite place!

-- Scott M. Stroh, Executive Director, Gunston Hall

MY Historic House

I don't know anything about this house. Okay, that’s not entirely true. I know that I lived here for mhhjust under three months in 1999 during the summer between when I completed undergraduate school and moved to California for grad school. A quick search on Zillow tells me that it was built in 1955 and is worth $180,000. It likely was a young family’s first home once upon a time. When I lived there it was a near-campus party house. You might know the kind: dishes stacked in mounds, permanent keg ring stained on the wood floors, mismatched odds and ends furniture, coated in dog fur and saturated in cigarette smoke.

This was the kind of house that, when each time you returned home, you’d be greeted with a beer and a houseful of strangers. My room was in the back on the right corner of the house. It was my personal (and clean) sanctuary inside this otherwise worn and well-partied interior.  One evening after a long day of working, I was sleeping in my room. My roommate’s girlfriend knocked on my door and told me she had brought a friend she wanted to introduce me to. An old friend from high school that was visiting while on break from school in San Diego.  I walked out into the living room wearing an old pair of jeans and a rumpled white t-shirt. There in front of me was one of the most beautiful women I had ever met.

yurtWhile the content of the conversation is still hazy to me, what I most recall is sitting on this porch, talking with her for hours on end, smoking cigarettes and drinking wine on a warm midsummer evening. We kept in touch for a while, but parted ways eventually—she was moving to Scotland to study abroad and I was moving to California for school. Years later, we reconnected with a chance phone call. Today, she’s my wife and friend for 14 years.

Places leave indelible marks on our memories and are themselves imbued with our presence.  We’ve all read about the plight of historic house museums around the country. For reasons both justifiable and not, they find themselves increasingly irrelevant and unpopular. But, I challenge each and every person to consider the undeniable importance of memory that any residence—an apartment, a house, a mansion, a tent—holds on our conscience. It’s powerful stuff.

Every place is dripping with personal histories—joyous and sorrowful—that are moving and universally understood. Historic houses are fundamentally important to our identities as Myhistorichouse hastag picindividuals and communities. This power is an untapped resource for proclaiming the value of historic house museums. I’d like to invite you to share your personal story on social media with the hashtag #myhistorichouse and reignite the power of place with your colleagues, family and friends.

-- Nathan Richie, Director, Golden History Museums

Reflections on the Small Museums Committee: A Conversation with Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko

We’re looking back in time – March 31, 2004, to be exact – to when the Small Museums Committee formed, and honoring the progressive folks who made up the inaugural committee. 

Today we’re checking in with Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko, founding chair of the Small Museums Committee. Today Cinnamon is the President and CEO of the Abbe Museum, a medium size museum, but she still regularly relies on the knowledge and skills she gained while working in small museums and serving on the SMC.

Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko, President and CEO of the Abbe Museum
Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko, President and CEO of the Abbe Museum

Here’s what she had to say:

In 2004, when I was in my 3rd week of SHA, AASLH’s President and CEO, Terry Davis, asked me to serve as founding chair of the Small Museums Committee. I was working at the General Lew Wallace Study and Museum then, so this was a chance for me to figure out how to grow the place, and to think about the field in very real time. I remember sitting in my office, trying to run a SMC conference call while operating the museum simultaneously.

AASLH was right in the thick of it when small museums were first getting attention on the national level in the mid-2000s. At the same time, the American Alliance of Museum’s Small Museums Administrators Committee was already in existence and finally getting traction. 

With the Small Museums Committee, the first order of business was getting the scholarship in place. The first year, we sent one scholarship winner to the Annual Meeting. In 2014, the SMC raised enough to pay for six full-time and two partial scholarship winners. That’s how much we’ve grown in ten years.

As a young committee we were trying to get out publications for the field. While there were plenty of good resources addressing the needs of small museums out there, they weren’t written by folks working in small museums. We wanted to start a national movement, so we all began conducting sessions on small museums issues at numerous state, regional and national conferences. 

We began writing a series of articles, the first being AASLH Technical Leaflet #242 from the Spring of 2008, entitled “DIY Strategic Planning for Small Museums.” [It’s available for download here] The Small Museum Toolkit also evolved out of that. [This six-volume set covers every conceivable topic on operating small museums. Learn more here.]

That project became much larger than we first envisioned. We knew it had to take the form of a conversation initiated by folks working in small museums. I believe the Small Museums Committee is successful because it stays true to that vision of making us all aware of how much work it involves, while providing camaraderie. 

It takes a special person to work in a small museum. It’s not for everyone. These conversations were crucial in developing these resources and in determining the directions the committee would take.

Some of my best and earliest memories of collegiality came out of the SMC. They get it, and they understand it.  What was most memorable at the beginning was that we were so busy—how could we carve out the time to do it?  But we did it.

For me, SMC is important, but the AASLH support network and the SHA experience were invaluable; they really propelled us forward. [The General Lew Wallace Study and Museum, under Cinnamon’s leadership, received a National Medal for Museum and Library Service in 2008.] What I learned there provided validation and momentum.

The other big cheerleader for us was Heritage Preservation. Early in my tenure at Lew Wallace we did a CAP and MAP to lay a foundation of knowledge and needs and to map out our future steps. Later, Heritage Preservation nominated the Lew Wallace for the National Medal. 

Small museums have an advantage over big museums in that they apply for different grants than bigger museums. We carefully constructed feasible proposals that met our operational goals, worked on capacity building, and kept in line with a realistic strategic plan. We emerged out of the caretaker mode, then into an operational mode, and finally into the professional mode through perseverance and hard work. A big reason we received that award was because we were doing a good job, we were telling people what was possible, and we were being effective advocates. The more small museums share their experiences, the better we’ll all be.

Just when I think small museums have defined themselves as legitimate partners in the field, I’m surprised how many people still don’t take them seriously. We need to get out there and tell people about the work they’re doing.  Even though I now work in a medium-sized museum, I still rely on my experience working in a small museum.

We need to keep these conversations alive, spreading the word about the good work always being done in small museums.

Special thanks to Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko for taking time out to reflect back on the establishment of the Small Museums Committee and the importance of small museums.

Oh, Those Pesky Primary Sources!

One of the conundrums staff faces at the Molly Brown House Museum in Denver, Colorado is surprisingly, a dearth of primary source material on Margaret “Molly” Brown. As a historic house museum which focuses on the biography of an internationally recognized western female figure, newspaper articles tell us what she wore, where she traveled and even what she said on many a given day.

MBHM HaveyBUT, try to find a letter which definitively puts Margaret Brown in France in 1917 driving ambulance for the Red Cross? OR find a photograph which places her at the Marble House Conference of Great Women in Newport, Rhode Island in 1914? NOT GONNA HAPPEN.  How then does a historic house museum use biography when its own archives are incomplete and the primary sources seem insufficient to paint a complete picture? Better yet, how does this in of itself become a teaching tool?

The study of a biography can provide historic house museums valuable learning opportunities by providing ample ways to explore primary sources, encourage critical thinking, and conduct both literary and historical analysis.  Biography has numerous uses that make tangible important humanities themes by expressing myth or fiction, community identity, popular story telling or the historical narrative of a particular time and place.  These themes include the use of biography in history, the application of biography as a tool to express regional identity, and the presentation of the past through popular culture outlets, such as literature, theater, opera, and cinema.

By the second half of the 20th century, changes in historical analysis, especially regarding the experiences of women and minorities, caused a re-examination of America’s most significant biographies.  As Richard Etulain described in his book Re-Imagining the Modern American West, “the hegemonic Wild West myth had to be challenged, even destroyed, if women’s experiences in the American West were to be understood.”

Almost immediately after her death in 1932, Margaret’s legend began to grow and change. The first biography of Margaret Brown was in the regional best-seller, Timber Line which includes an embellished account of Margaret’s life, beginning with her unrealistic birth during a cyclone in Colorado.  Fowler sold the rights to his story and the musical “The Unsinkable Molly Brown,” by Meredith Willson and Richard Morris, resulted.  The musical became a smash hit on Broadway and a Hollywood movie of the same name hit theaters in 1964.

MBHM Teaching Primary Sources

Fast forward 50 years and the Molly Brown House Museum is still taming the embedded western mythologies which, coupled with the absence of some critical primary sources, actually creates opportunities for teachable moments in the story of Margaret Brown. Her work in the aftermath of the Titanic disaster is fairly well-documented, but for instance, when we move forward two years in her life to 1914 concerning her work driving ambulance during WWI, her actions are not as well documented.

This period in Mrs. Brown’s biography allows us to talk about personal and public communication during periods of war. Such topics as censorship and propaganda, oral histories, disrupted infrastructures, trench warfare, and early technologies in communication all help museum learners understand the shifting nature of primary sources. Now, if only we had that letter from Mrs. Brown reporting her experience driving wounded soldiers from the battlefield!

By Andrea Malcomb, Director of the Molly Brown House Museum in Denver, Colorado.

Growing History: Children and Gardens

Cooking and eating meals can be a deeply personal experience.  Families and friends connect and build memories and traditions over food.  A bite or smell of a familiar dish can bring up powerful memories.  However, many people today, especially children, are completely disconnected from the natural, seasonal cycle of food and the daily task of cooking. How can we as educators in historic institutions help visitors overcome these barriers and help our visitors connect to people who lived hundreds of years ago?

Hagley Garden In 2012, I began working on finding an answer to this question with my master’s thesis.  I chose to focus specifically on children’s experiences in historic house gardens, and what they may learn about food after participating in programming.  I conducted research at 5 historic homes in the Philadelphia area.  Each group of children I surveyed had participated in hands-on programs that focused on edible plants growing on the property.  I gave children a Venn diagram and asked them to identify food they saw that day that people today would eat, people in the past would eat, and people from both time periods would eat.

The results of my survey showed that overall, children have a difficult time learning about food in a garden.  When children think about food, no matter the time period, produce is not the first thing that comes to mind. This word cloud shows the frequency of different responses children gave.  The larger the word, the more often it was recorded on the survey.  In the past, people evidentially existed exclusively on meat and ice cream! Further analysis revealed that prepared foods were referenced more frequently (44% of all responses) than produce (34% of all responses). Word Doodle

So why did this happen? I wonder if the educators themselves were assuming children were more familiar with produce than they actually were.  Think about how kids typically interact with food.  Their parents or other adults hand them a snack or place a plate in front of them at mealtime.  Most kids really aren’t involved in any food preparation on a regular basis, so they rarely see the “raw” form of fruits and veggies. Many adults don’t cook, and they don’t share those skills or interests with their children. Seeing a plant – a collection of leaves, stems, flowers, and fruit that appear at different times throughout the growing season – might be confusing to children who only see food as a meal on a plate.

So how can we, as educators, work to better teach children about food in our gardens?  The first step may be accurately establishing the level of prior knowledge your visitors have.  Simply ask them at the start of your program, “Who here has gardened before?” or “What is your favorite vegetable? Do you know how it grows?” When you are teaching the program, keep this information in mind and create connections to the children’s prior knowledge.

Maya and Evie

Another technique might be to incorporate examples of fully-grown produce in a form the children may be familiar with.  For example, if you grow corn in your garden, have an example of it, both on the cob and canned.  If they can connect what’s in the ground with what ends up on their plate your program may have more successful outcomes.  Or better yet, find a way to let kids taste what they see! If you can’t share the produce your garden grows, what about buying something from the store to taste?

Ruth Lonvick is with the Hagley Museum and Library. If you have more questions about this topic, or are interested in reading her full thesis, “Growing History: A Study of Children’s Meaning Making in Historic House Gardens,” please feel free to contact her at [email protected]