An image of a building sitting on a green lawn under a blue sky behind a purple banner that reads “AASLH Online Course Museum and Education Outreach” with a white icon that reads “Small Museum Pro!”

Online Course: Museum Education and Outreach

An AASLH Small Museum Pro! Online Course

Course Description

At their heart, regardless of type or size, museums are engaging, dynamic places of education. This AASLH online course, Museum Education and Outreach, is about how we can facilitate visitors’ meaningful and memorable experiences in the informal environments of museums. The program looks at the larger umbrella of programming at sites and explores the large concept of who our audiences are, how best to connect with them, and what is needed to develop various methods.

This course requires regular check-ins, sharing and commenting on peer work, and participation in scheduled live chats. Participants will help shape the flow of the course in addition to providing resources and insights on each other’s work. Assignments are made weekly to allow for regular feedback and dialogue. While work can be done at your own pace, meeting deadlines is encouraged to maximize the experience. Throughout the course you will develop a toolkit of strategies, policies, and documents ready for immediate implementation.

  • Week 1: Defining the Museum / Museums and Memory
  • Week 2: Interpretation Strengths, Weaknesses, and Best Practices
  • Week 3: Audiences and Identifying Your Key Ones
  • Week 4: Education Program Planning, Management, and Evaluation
  • Week 5: Organizing of Museum Education and Outreach
  • Week 6: Community Partners and Funding
  • Week 7: Leading Staff and Volunteers
  • Week 8: Action Plan for Future Programming at your Museum


COURSE DATES: March 2 - April 26, 2020

COST: $195 AASLH Members / $295 Nonmembers

OPEN REGISTRATION: November 1, 2019 - February 23, 2020; 25 participant limit


Course Logistics

FORMAT: Online, instructor-led, weekly-paced course

LENGTH: 8 weeks

PARTICIPATION STYLE: Bi-weekly one-hour online chats - schedule to be determined by the instructor at the start of the course - if you are unable to attend a chat you can read the transcript and then post your thoughts/questions in the General Forum; weekly readings and assignments; final course assignment. Students should expect to spend approximately 5 hours per week on the course.

MATERIALS: One required text: The Museum Educator's Manual: Educators Share Successful Techniques, Second Edition, Anna Johnson, Kimberly A. Huber, Nancy Cutler, Melissa Bingmann and Tim Grove, 2017. (Texts are NOT INCLUDED with your registration. You must order the book separately from the book seller of your choice.)

CREDIT: Successful completion of this course (80% or higher) will earn one credit toward the Small Museum Pro! certificate from AASLH.

Participant Outcomes

At the end of this course you will be able to:

  • describe the characteristics and learning needs of various museum audiences;
  • summarize what we know about learning in museums;
  • assess the strengths and weaknesses of interpretive techniques and program approaches;
  • utilize a system for planning, operating, and evaluating museum educational programs;
  • access resources to assist you in future development of effective learning experiences

Who Should Take This Course

This course is a beginning level course designed for professional staff and volunteers of historical organizations and libraries with historical collections who have little to no experience with developing education programs and goals for museums. Successful participants should be ready to look past traditional methods and challenge themselves to work around site-specific hurdles.


Tanya Brock is one who tends to take leaps and jumps rather than the straight path. Her career has spanned museum education, visitor services, exhibit planning, historical research, educational program consultant, and community partner liaison. Whether teaching food preservation classes or designing and running the nation’s first functioning historical brewery or running a brewpub co-op, her passion has always been centered on food—its power to unite and act as a storyteller for communities.

Her education is a patchwork of cultural anthropology, food preservation, heritage interpretation, and museum administration. This background has built a foundation of various perspectives from which she draws from when designing programs. Over a 20-year period she has worked with audiences of all sizes, ages, and backgrounds yet believes at the end of the day, it is the guest who drives the conversation and the experience.

Museum Education Roundtable Announces 2017 Award Winners

The Museum Education Roundtable is pleased and proud to announce the 2017 recipients of its inaugural Awards for Writing Excellence and Editorial Excellence for the Journal of Museum Education. All awardees are recognized for their high levels of scholarly dedication, original thought, leadership, and synthesis required to be published in the JME.

Melanie Adams, a member of the AASLH Council, has received the Award for Writing Excellence for her individual article, “Deconstructing Systems of Bias in the Museum Field Using Critical Race Theory”, in issue 42.3 of the JME. This article discusses the basic tenets of Critical Race Theory, and applies them to museum case studies to highlight museum practices that de-center white normativity, center and honor the work of people of color in the arts, and work towards dismantling racism in exhibitions and programs. Anna Forgerson Hindley and Julie Olson Edwards have received the Award for Writing Excellence for their guest edited article “Early Childhood and Racial Identity,” in issue 42.1 of the JME. This article examines how the National Museum of African American History and Culture approaches conversations on race with young children and their families and teachers. Esther Washington and Anna Forgerson Hindley have received the Award for Editorial Excellence for their work guest editing issue 42.1 of the JME. Their guest-edited issue “focused on the knowledge that race is a social construct that has a powerful and lasting impact on society, and how the renewed national discourse about race has impacted and will continue to impact the work of our museum and others.”

The Award for Writing Excellence goes to the author(s) of the articles deemed by members of the Museum Education Roundtable board to be novel, thought-provoking, and of the highest caliber of scholarship and writing. Any article accepted for publication and published within a calendar year is automatically eligible for consideration for the Award for Writing Excellence. The Award for Editorial Excellence goes to the guest editor(s) of the themed issue from which the Writing Excellence article was chosen. Any guest editor or guest editorial team is automatically eligible for consideration for the Award for Editorial Excellence.

Read more about the awardees in the Museum Education Roundtable March blog post.

What Public Historians Can Learn from Fourth Graders

Ranger Nick Sacco with a group of Fourth Graders at Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site. All photo credits go to the National Park Service/Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site.

As a former classroom teacher and a current front-line interpreter with the National Park Service, I've had the privilege of interacting with and educating literally tens of thousands of k-12 students. I didn't anticipate this turn of events when I first dreamed of being an educator. Early in my training I decided that I wanted to work with high school students and thought that teaching younger students would be nothing but a major headache. As I transitioned into the public history field, however, I learned that my past prejudices would have to be thrown out the door. I felt nervous and useless when 120 fourth graders stared at me as I began a tour of the Indiana State House for the first time four years ago.

Since that time I have come to cherish the experiences and relationships I've forged with younger students as a public historian. I like working with all age groups now, but my favorite group might be fourth graders. They have taught me valuable lessons about teaching, learning, and the process of interpreting history that I would not have learned had I stayed in the classroom. What follows are three lessons I've learned from working with fourth graders in a public history setting.


Seek to learn about the context in which a historical event took place and then explain that context in a clear, concise fashion.

Fourth graders are in a unique developmental phase of their lives. They start seeing glimpses of the "big picture" beyond their own personal experiences and are eager for explanations as to why things operate the way they do. I will never forget when a student watched a film about the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement and asked me why "Jim Crow became so big" (her words) and why it took 100 years for the country to address questions about racial discrimination and voter disenfranchisement. Such a question may not be easily answerable, but it reminds us that history is not merely a series of dates, dead people, and dust, but a struggle to understand causes, context, and consequences in historical events. Fourth graders understand that.

Contrary to what some educators may think about young students struggling to handle difficult historical topics, I have been continually impressed with the interest and willingness of elementary students of all backgrounds to discuss shortcomings in America's past. Students at a young age learn about the D.A.R.E. program and sex education in school. Generally speaking they can handle the tough stuff of history, provided that programs are done with sensitivity, care, and numerous opportunities for students to share their own feelings and perspectives. Explaining U.S. history to fourth graders can be difficult, but it challenges historians to devise strategies for teaching this content in ways that are clear, concise, and contextual. If a fourth grader can understand what you're saying, you can assume most of the public will understand you too.

Always be prepared to answer the "why" questions

As history professionals, we don't need to be told why history is important; we love studying the past and our livelihoods depend on it. But the "why" questions are not always so evident to the many publics that we work with on a daily basis. Fourth graders are really good at challenging history educators to explain the relevance of a given topic and clarify confusing aspects of the past. In recent programs I have been asked questions like "Why did slavery exist in the United States?" "Why do Ku Klux Klan members wear hoods over their head?" and "Why does the National Park Service have sites dedicated to history?" The depth and breadth of these questions are rarely exceeded by the ones adult visitors ask me on a regular basis.

These questions highlight the intelligence and perceptiveness of fourth graders. Simple explanations like "that's the way it was!" are simply not good enough for them, and they will keep peppering you with questions until it makes sense to them.


Fourth Graders in the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site Museum

Always maintain a sense of curiosity about the world.

Perhaps the most impressive trait of fourth graders is their natural curiosity about the ways of the world. They are always anxious to ask questions, answer questions, look at historic artifacts, participate in group activities, and learn something new. They also have a desire to create and use their imagination during the learning process. This curiosity is infectious and motivates me in my own intellectual inquiries. What would the world look like if we adults maintained the intellectual curiosity of a fourth grader the rest of our lives?

Evaluating the success or failure of a particular education program at a public history site is difficult partly because the tangible results of a student's visit may take years to develop. The relevance of a fourth grader's visit to a historic site may not come to light until that student takes an interest in studying history while in high school or college, for example. Most of us in the public history field, however, are here because we had a positive experience at such a site when we were younger. It was within the welcoming environment of these sites where we were first encouraged to embrace our passion for learning and our inner curiosity in the fascinating stories of the past. Scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson often recalls how a visit to a local planetarium at age 9 inspired him to study science, and I have heard countless historians recall how a visit to a historic home, museum, or battlefield sparked their interest in history.

Public historians should always work to encourage a sense of curiosity in their educational programs, especially when young people participate. Your presence in a student's life might inspire them to be the next Ken Burns, Henry Louis Gates, Jill Lepore, or, just as importantly, the person who will fill your shoes someday.

Nick Sacco is a public historian who works as a Park Guide with the National Park Service at Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site. He holds a master's degree in history with a concentration in public history from IUPUI. Nick has previously worked for the Indiana State House, the National Council on Public History, the Missouri History Museum Library and Research Center, and as a paraprofessional. He also blogs about history at his personal website, "Exploring the Past."

Want to write for AASLH? Learn more and submit an article here.  


A Few Simple Tips for Public Historians Working with Confrontational Visitors

An interpreter at Mackinac State historic Parks, Michigan.
An interpreter at Mackinac State Historic Parks, Michigan.

This article was originally posted on Exploring the Past and is re-posted here with permission from the author. 

Public historians who work in interpretation and education often find themselves in a uniquely different setting from that of a classroom history teacher. A classroom teacher typically has at least sixteen weeks to learn about his or her students and to build a relationship with them. The teacher typically works with those students from sixty to ninety minutes per classroom session, and the really good ones blend a range of pedagogical techniques throughout the semester that simultaneously foster teamwork, historical empathy, a better understanding of historical content for a given time period, enhanced reading, writing, and research skills, and a heightened appreciation of the importance of history in our daily lives.

Public historians share many of these same goals when working with their many publics, but the amount of time we have to communicate with them is much shorter. In my work with the National Park Service I typically get one ten-minute introductory talk to build a relationship with visitors of all different backgrounds and spark an interest in history within them. My interpretive narrative changes and evolves with each group I work with in the hope that I can meet people where they are on their own journey through history. In the public history world you must quickly learn how to work in small time spaces like mine. Moreover, you never know who will walk through that door to visit your site on a given day, which is simultaneously exciting and nerve-racking.



Those who work the front lines with their many publics are often trained to study historical content, put together an interpretive program based on a knowledge of that content, focus on exposing “multiple perspectives” to the past through the eyes of various historical actors and, if possible, make connections to present-day circumstances. These objectives are noble and challenging, especially because the historical content we interpret and the present-day connections we make are inherently political. If you work in public history long enough, you will run into a visitor who will object to the historical content you share, your intent to go beyond the historical perspective of White Anglo Saxon men, and the connections you make between the past and the present. These interactions can be difficult and emotionally draining. The recent news of increasingly hostile anti-immigrant comments from visitors to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York City is but one example of tour guides experiencing a great deal of challenging visitor feedback about their interpretive stories and the messy politics of the present.

We are trained to understand the past but less often trained to deal with the present. While public historians should be prepared for confrontational visitors, how to work with these visitors to turn heated confrontations into meaningful interactions that promote learning and understanding is often left unsaid. What follows are a few simple tips that I’ve employed in my own interactions with confrontational visitors over the years.

Respectfully challenge visitors to further explain and defend their claims.

The purpose of education in my view is to encourage learning, which I broadly define as a change in thinking about and understanding of the world through experience, study, and interaction. When I experience a confrontational visitor, my first desire is to turn the interaction into a learning opportunity through dialogue. Public historians need to be well-versed in historical content and methods, but they also need to be effective conversationalists. Good public history practice is as much about being a respectful, attentive listener to visitor feedback as it is about effectively communicating historical content. When public historians demonstrate their willingness to listen, they establish trust with visitors and open the door for respectful interactions. They might also learn something from a visitor during the process!


An interpreter at a Minnesota Historical Society site.
Interpreters at a Minnesota Historical Society site.

When a visitor says something I might disagree with, I try to respectfully challenge that claim by encouraging the visitor to keep talking rather than telling them outright that they’re wrong. I like to use the following prompts:

“Tell me more.”

“What sources did you rely on to make that conclusion?”

“Where did you hear that claim? I’ve heard a few different viewpoints on this topic.”

“I want to better understand your perspective. What you do mean when you say…”

“There’s been a lot of debate about this topic. Have you read [enter a relevant work of scholarship] before? It might offer a different perspective worth considering.”

“Thanks for sharing your perspective. What made you interested in this topic?”

Each of these prompts challenges visitors to defend their position while also encouraging them to continue sharing their perspective with someone who’s willing to respectfully listen to them. I particularly like “tell me more” and “what sources did you rely on” because they put the onus on the visitor to explain and defend themselves. After listening and providing a few prompts to get the visitor talking, you then put yourself in a position to share your perspective and use your historical knowledge to direct the visitor towards resources they can use to learn more after the interaction has taken place. None of this is rocket science, but these prompts have been my best tools for challenging confrontational visitors.


Gettysburg Battlefield
Gettysburg Battlefield

Different circumstances require different sorts of responses from public historians.

While public historians should always strive to encourage visitor feedback and constructive dialogue, there are times when the best option is to stop the conversation and let it go. Some visitors will simply refuse to listen to you or give you the respect you deserve as an educator and scholar. Your emotions, self-respect, and dignity come first, and sometimes saying “we’ll just have to agree to disagree” is the only path forward.

There are other times where clearing up misinformation and historical inaccuracies stated by visitors requires a response more forceful than a dialogic method. For example, a visitor once argued to me that Abraham Lincoln was a slaveholder. It was necessary, in my view, to simply state right off the bat that such a claim is inaccurate and to explain that Lincoln lived in free states his entire adult life save for his time in Washington, D.C. I felt like we needed to be on the same page on this matter before engaging in a dialogue about Lincoln’s political views towards slavery.

So, in sum, each individual interaction with a visitor has unique circumstances attached to it. Public historians must determine on an individual basis how they’ll respond to the confrontational visitor, whether that be through dialogue, a more assertive approach that corrects inaccurate information, or a decision that the conversation is too heated and should be ended.

Never put labels on visitors. Challenge what they say and do rather than making claims about who they are.

The social commentator Jay Smooth says it best in the below video when he argues that if you hope to get through to a person and give yourself a chance to change their perspective, it’s more effective to focus on what they say then making claims about who they are. We don’t know the personal lives of our visitors or how their life experiences have shaped their particular perspective of the world. When the focus is on speculating about someone’s motives or putting labels on that person, the conversation turns into name-calling and the potential for a genuine learning opportunity is lost. Furthermore, your ability to hold someone accountable for their views becomes much tougher when you focus on names instead of words and actions. In my own work I often encounter visitors who believe the American Civil War had nothing to do with slavery. The easy response would be to call out the person’s incorrect view and accuse them of being a neo-Confederate. A more productive response would challenge that person using the above prompts to ask them how they came to that conclusion. Rather that saying that the person is a neo-Confederate, I can respectfully state, using my knowledge of historical scholarship and contemporary debate, that what they’re arguing sounds like something a neo-Confederate might say.

You might also find this video helpful:

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My 5 Favorite Props to Use in Programs


One thing that every interpreter has to do to be effective is to get and keep their audiences' attention. If no one is listening then there is little value to what is being said. Of course we could all just jump up and down shouting, "Listen to me! Listen to me!" over and over, but most of us have developed slightly more subtle techniques than that. We all know that certain topics, programs, people and artifacts are are going to lend themselves to getting attention better than some others, so here is a list of five objects I love to use in various programs.



5. Animal Skins

Whether it is talking about early hunting or clothes making, animal skins are always a big hit with kids. Anything with a gross factor is going to immediately be cool, and since very few of the kids that visit us have ever skinned an animal this is definitely a little gross. Also as I show off a skin, I like to have the group try and guess what kind of animal it used to be. Sometimes that game goes smoothly, and sometimes every single one of the skins is a "bear." Once we go through that the next big thing is getting to feel the furs and see the difference between deer, rabbit, squirrel, and chipmunk. (Pro Tip: Don't pass them out if you still have anything to say to the kids.  This prop can be too good at getting their attention.)




4. Flax Hackle

This is great just because it looks more like a torture device than an old timey tool. I like to bring the flax hackle out from behind a table or out of the closet suddenly. There is nothing like surprising a group of children (and adults charged with their safety) with an old piece of wood filled with six inch long, hand forged iron nails held over your head to get some attention. This is one of those props that can really can speak for itself. Once you go into what it would be used for and how it works, some of the mystery is lost, but it does make for a fun guessing game for the first little while. Plus it never hurts to see how wide and audiences eyes can get.

3. Ink Balls

This one I like mostly because I love the program that they go with. We do a program that takes the kids through their lives as an apprentice in an early print shop. It is a great way to show the kids the difference in their education today and how they would have learned a trade back then. This is another great item for a guessing game. Many students will guess that they are some kind of stamp, which isn't far from the truth, but you will get plenty of maracas or early boxing gloves. The most fun with these is talking about how those kids would have to clean all of that ink off of the leather when they get dirty. Turns out the easiest way is to simply soak them in a bucket of urine, reach in and grab them, and ring them out to dry.  You pretty much have all eyes on you from the word urine. (Pro Tip: For some audiences I use the term ink daubers instead of ink balls.)


2. A bag of any kind

I tend to use a Civil War era haversack for most of my programming, but I like the name longhunters gave their bags even better: Possibles Bag. That is exactly why this prop is such a great tool for programming. It could possibly hold anything. Kids will be wondering what is in there from the beginning and as your program goes on you can keep going back to reveal something new and interesting over and over. A stale piece of hardtack, flint, tools, a knife, and needles and thread can all add an extra dimension to a program. Having a bag on your shoulder where just about anything can come out will keep the kids guessing the whole time.

guns1. Guns

They're guns. There isn't much more to say. If you come out holding a gun, everyone is looking at you. Is that real?Is it loaded?  How would you load it? Does it shoot? How heavy is it? Can I hold it (my answer is always no)? And if you are somewhere where you can fire the gun without getting the cops called on you, then you can do anything you want from there.

What are you some of the props or items that get the most attention in your programs? I could always use some more ideas.

Cultural Competency: A Powerful Tool for Change


At the 2016 AASLH Annual Meeting, the Educators and Interpreters Committee hosted a session on cultural competency featuring staff from the Arab American National Museum (AANM). As staff from the first and only ethno-specific museum in the United States devoted to Arab American history and culture, the presenters provided insight into the challenges they commonly face when engaging visitors in museum content as well as strategies used throughout AANM to promote deeper understanding of the Arab American experience.

The session was dense and filled with far too much information for one blog post to cover. Luckily for everyone, you can listen to the full session recording here.

The topic of assumptions surfaced fairly regularly throughout the session. Foremost among them, and a misconception that AANM staff work to tackle head on, is the conflation of the terms “Arab” and “Muslim.” AANM staff noted that they work diligently to clarify for visitors that not all Muslims are Arab and not all Arabs are Muslim. In fact, we learned that the majority of Arab Americans are actually Christian.


Our presenters were right to point out that phenotype does not necessarily say anything about religion, or even ethnicity for that matter. As a half-Iranian woman with fair skin and light-brown hair, I can personally attest to how common it is for people to use visual markers as the only indication of diversity (keenly evidenced by the surprised looks I get when I mention I am half-Iranian).

Assumptions like these have the potential to be the most destructive because often people don’t realize they are making an assumption in the first place. It is fairly easy to identify when someone is stereotyping, and our presenters pointed out that they do work to directly challenge stereotypes using the media to illustrate specific points. I believe the intention behind having us, first in our table groups and then as a whole, engage in discussions surrounding various scenarios was to recognize and discuss the power of assumptions. In this regard, I found the activity successful.


However, I found it very, very interesting that of the four scenarios included on our activity worksheet, no group was given scenario 2. Scenario 2 read:

A museum is looking to hire an educator. After completing two rounds of interviews with strong candidates, the committee decided to call on two competing profiles for a final interview: Sarah Abuharas and Joy Boykin. Sarah is a strong candidate and has the educational and professional credentials. She will also meet the diversity initiative because she is a veiled Muslim woman. Joy is equally strong, but seems a bit shy. During the last round of interviews, the committee was shocked and troubled by Sarah’s attire. She walked in wearing a blue abaya (a long traditional gown, typically in black).

Perhaps the panel simply felt that we did not have enough time to meaningfully engage in this scenario. Or perhaps they felt that it was opening up too big a “can of worms,” so to speak. Hiring practices and veiled women in one scenario? Who knows how the audience will respond!


In all seriousness, I was troubled by the fact that we did not address this scenario, as to me it sends the message that discussing hijab and the veil is somehow too difficult a topic to talk about in a public, professional forum. As a woman who, by her own choice, wore the hijab from grade three through her first semester of college, I find it troubling that this scenario was somehow considered too taboo. How can we encourage meaningful cultural competence if we undermine the entire concept by branding certain topics too difficult?

In fairness to the presenters, they may not have intended to send this message by skipping the scenario. They may have felt that we did not have the context necessary to discuss the scenario in a meaningful way, and not that hijab was somehow too difficult a topic to discuss. None the less, it felt to me like we were shying away from what could have been the most powerful discussion of the session.

As one session participant pointed out, we need to stop shying away from feelings of discomfort and instead embrace them for the powerful learning moments they can be. We all, to varying degrees, may feel discomfort around particular “difficult” topics, whether these topics are historical or contemporary. Asking ourselves why we feel uncomfortable, and then critically reflecting upon these reasons, is the only way we as educators can move towards a critically self-reflective practice anchored in cultural competence.


Guests are People Too: Avoiding Toxic Behind-the-Scenes Venting

Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society


Anyone have school tours running around lately?  Anyone tired from a busy summer season?  Anyone have staff grumbling about students and guests and how badly behaved, or annoying, or dense, or stupid they are… whoa.  What’s going on?

I want to shine a light on a trap that we all risk falling into. And this is the time of year when the risk of this trap is even higher.

We’re burned out, and the days are long, and nerves are shot. So, of course it feels good to vent and say “Oh my Gosh!  That Teacher! What was that about?!” And then when a co-worked says “I know, right?!” that feels good. You share these stories and vent and feel like you’re building camaraderie with co-workers.  

Old World Wisconsin
Old World Wisconsin

I’d like to warn you all - don’t fall into the trap of making light of the gripes and grumbles. Don’t classify these words as normal camaraderie, or mere venting. Of course, camaraderie and a happy culture are essential to great work, but that should not be built on a foundation of belittling our strongest asset- our patrons.

Where is the line between venting and toxicity?

We know how damaging a negative review on TripAdvisor or Facebook can be. It takes work to rebuild ratings after negative feedback. Why aren’t we more careful about how we manage our guest’s image within our own halls?

When we belittle our guests we make assumptions about them. We create expectations about guests. We use these expectations when engaging with guests. And when our expectations are that kids will be annoying and teachers will be wackos, and parents will be lazy-what does that do to the quality of our engagement with them?

When we on-board new staff, I make sure to tell them they will have a unique perspective on social norms and our visiting public. They will have days that try their patience. The will have days that make them pull their hair and worry about the future of education. But they will also have days filled with wonder and amazement that restore their faith in humanity. It’s these days that we should be sharing. We need to very intentionally make this the core of our team building and sharing.

Old World Wisconsin
Old World Wisconsin

Each morning we start our day with a Morning Meeting to re-cap tours, updates, and other need-to-know info for the day. I’ve started to ask my team to share a stand-out example from the past day or week. Not everyone has to go, but if there is a hand or two in the air, that’s great. They share a spark, or a story that made them go “That’s why I do what I do.” These will be tiny moments, but they are the moments we can’t afford to forget.  

I’d invite you all to share the intentional actions we can do to shine a light on the good days so that the bad days don’t become the toxic sludge in which we risk becoming mired.


Telling a Good Story Makes for a Better Tour

The guided tour... people either love them or hate them. A good guided tour can captivate an audience. A bad one can have visitors looking for the nearest exit. What most tour guides focus on is key information (dates, places, names, etc.), and while this is definitely important, few visitors leave being impressed by the volume of facts they were told. At the Homestead Museum, we have come to realize our own shortcomings in this regard. While our tours are accurate, they are not necessarily as interesting and engaging as they can be. So, we asked ourselves how we could make our tours better. The answer was to focus on telling a good story.


A Tour at the Homestead Museum, City of Industry, CA
A Tour at the Homestead Museum, City of Industry, CA

Stories are a key part of what it means to be human. They are at the core of who we are, and allow us to experience, empathize, and connect. They can bridge the gap between knowing when something happened and understanding why it happened. A narrative weaves together the what, how, and why of an event by connecting them as a series of actions. Narrative language breathes life into stories, making people curious to know what happens next. Yes, history is about facts, it is made up of things that really happened, so why does putting the events in the format of a story matter? To answer that question, we look to neuroscience.

When we listen to someone providing us with the facts about an event, or a list of information, there are two places in the brain that light up: the Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas. Both of these handle how we process and understand language. But when we listen to the same information as a story, filled with action and description, suddenly multiple areas of the brain respond. The sensory cortex and cerebellum light up when we hear about how things feel (texture and sensation). The motor cortex responds when we hear about physical movement (walk, jump, etc.). The olfactory cortex engages when we hear descriptions of how things smell. The visual cortex connects to discussions about color and shape, and the auditory cortex reacts to descriptions of sound. Our brains react to a story as if we are participating in it—as though it is happening to us.


A school tour at the Missouri History Museum
A school tour at the Missouri History Museum

While facts engage a small area of the brain, stories engage multiple points that help to create a vibrant picture in our minds. Stories draw us in and keep our attention; they stimulate our emotions, and according to Dr. Antonio Damasio, USC Professor of Neuroscience, “we don’t learn without emotional thought.” So by finding places in a guided tour to describe an image, sound, texture, color, sensation, or emotion; one creates an opportunity for visitors to take part in the stories being shared. Here are some techniques we recently asked our docents to consider to help them tell a good story:

Consider your audience - A good story is one that connects with your audience, and a good storyteller chooses what they say carefully. The amount of information you share and the way you share it should be adjusted based on the make-up of your group. Don’t feel compelled to cover everything. Watch your audience to see if information is resonating with them and make adjustments to your presentation as needed.

Take visitors on an emotional journey - A really good story resonates with people because at its core it has some basic universal aspects of being human. It doesn’t have to always be profound, but a good story should move the listener, make him/her laugh, think, or ponder it afterward. Think about how you are telling the story and try to modulate your voice. By adding excitement, sadness, or concern to your voice you are cuing your audience to experience those same emotions.

Be descriptive - Set the scene with descriptive language. When you think of a ranch, for example, what do you imagine? Open spaces? Dusty roads? Noisy cows? Solitude? Although visitors may not imagine the same thing as you, that’s OK. We want visitors to visualize their own images as they make connections to the information being shared.

Think about conflict and resolution - Some of the best stories have a well-defined main character that encounters trouble or conflict. Something interferes with the course of the main character’s life, whether it is nature, another person, or even the main character themselves. The action taken signifies growth and change — possibly an “ah ha!” moment — and then finally, a conclusion. It is the action, which moves the story from beginning to middle to end, that keeps the audience with you. The lives of historical people, much like our own, are filled with various obstacles to overcome. Explore with your audience how people have tried to adapt and change to the world around them. It humanizes them and connects your audience to the story.

What is your intention? - Stories have a lot of pieces to them, but not every piece serves the same purpose or provides structure or substance to the story as a whole. All listeners want to hear a story that has a direction and purpose. Think about why you are telling the story. What do you hope the audience will experience, or come away with knowing? By knowing where your story is going and the experience that you want your audience to have, the better your chance of delivering a successful tour.



History in Motion: What We Can Learn from U-Haul's Love for Local History

What’s the first thing you think of when you hear the word summer? Vacation? BBQs? The beach? How about moving? Every summer U-Haul estimates that 17-20 million people in North America move. I learned that after visiting their website a couple of weeks ago while sitting in summer traffic on Interstate 5 (thanks for driving, Phyllis!). The reason I visited their website was because of a graphic I saw on one of their trucks (see image below) . It featured a woman in period dress holding a lantern in front of an old house with a map serving as the background. Underneath her was the following: “Abolishing slavery decades earlier than the U.S., Canada became a haven for enslaved people seeking freedom. How did ‘conductors’ assist thousands? LEARN MORE ABOUT PATHS TO LIBERTY AT…”



Every time I see a *shout out* to history someplace I don’t expect to find it, I take notice, and this was no exception. I had seen U-Haul trucks with regional images before, but not any that went into detail about history. I was curious to know more. Whose idea was this? I guessed that a higher up at U-Haul had to love history, and I was right. Enter Shannon Myers, a member of U-Haul’s marketing team and coordinator of their SuperGraphic program.  She explained that CEO Joe Shoen is indeed a history buff, and a lover of geography, too.

The SuperGraphic program began in 1988 with the simple goal of giving back to the communities U-Haul serves throughout North America. Originally, trucks and trailers featured iconic monuments like the Statue of Liberty, but the program evolved over time, moving away from the iconic and more towards lesser known facts and stories. These are what U-Haul calls their Modern SuperGraphics. “Educating people about little known facts can have a great impact,” explains Myers, a history lover herself. When it comes to criteria for selecting what is worthy of a SuperGraphic (and there is a vetting process, which is why Big Foot has yet to make the cut even though he has been suggested numerous times!), the following points come into play:



Topics are usually related to regional curiosity, history, science, or mystery. (Humongous Fungus in Michigan? Who knew?) Myers does preliminary research on a subject, consults with experts, and makes proposals to a team of people from U-Haul’s marketing and art departments. Ultimately their CEO signs off on each selection.

Little or lesser-known subjects with a lot of meat on the bone are most desirable. The company wants to encourage people to explore and discover new things about their communities. While the Underground Railroad is a topic that many people know something about, there are elements of the subject that are lesser known by many, such as the fact that after 1850, most slaves looking for freedom had to travel all the way to Canada for their safety. “There are misconceptions about the Underground Railroad, and the truck is just one way to add to the depth of the story,” explains Myers. Additionally, Shoen sees the trucks as a way to support parents in introducing new topics to their children. Each Modern SuperGraphic features web content that digs deeper into the subject. (Layering of information… Does that sound familiar?)



Ideally, geography should factor into the story. They are in the business of moving, after all (and don’t forget about the passions of the CEO!). Every topic explored relates to a place the company serves. They like to see that represented visually.

There is no profit to be made by U-Haul for featuring a particular story, but they are pleased if a truck brings a historic site or place of interest more traffic and revenue. (See the publicity related to the Underground Railroad truck as an example.)

So what’s the takeaway for us? Stories associated with the site or museum where you work may not get the attention of U-Haul, but how about another business in your community? A car dealership or mechanic? A doctor’s office? Think about places where people have to spend a lot of time. Could we provide modest posters, exhibits, or write-ups that tie into why someone is visiting a particular establishment? And let’s not forget about places where people may be “forced” to spend time—like a jury room, a juvenile detention facility, or even a local jail. Really, I’m not kidding here.

This type of outreach may not align with every institution’s mission, but I think these places are under-tapped and underappreciated. Where I work, for example, we have a participatory program called Curious Cases where we explore crime and justice in early Los Angeles, making surprising connections to today’s headlines. We’ve talked about how we can take some of the content from certain programs and turn it into an offsite program for these audiences.


MainGraphic (2)

Going back to Joe… all I can say is thank you. You could be making big bucks off of a long line of advertisers, but you aren’t. In this regard, you are right here with those of us in the trenches, encouraging people to be curious, to care about their surroundings, to see how we are connected, and to have fun learning (even if it’s during breaks as you load and unload precious belongings!). Joe, like many of us, cares deeply about his customers, so much so that he even gave his cell phone number out on national television so that customers could call him directly with questions, comments, and concerns (he still answers these calls!). I’m definitely not advocating that anyone go out and do that, but dang, he’s the real deal!

Have you seen history pop up in unexpected places, or are you thinking about trying something new to get people excited about stories you have to share? Please let us know!


Alexandra Rasic is the Director of Public Programs at the Workman and Temple Family Homestead Museum in the City of Industry, CA, and chair of AASLH’s Educators and Interpreters Committee. She’s moved (only) five times—with four of the five involving U-Haul trucks. As long as she does not have to drive them up steep hills (thanks, Paul!), she’s good to go!

Cemeteries: The Eternal Classroom

When I read Michele M. Celani’s blog post about the effectiveness of historical markers in the classroom I thought “oh I know a bunch of amazing teachers the Inkwell readers would love!” Paul LaRue was kind enough to submit the entry below. Paul is a retired social studies teacher from rural southern Ohio. During his thirty-year career, he was the recipient of numerous state and national teaching awards. Paul is best known for his work getting students out into the community and doing the work of history.  I hope you enjoy this snippet of Paul’s work as much as we’ve enjoyed working with him! And if you are looking for more info on cemeteries check out this list of AASLH resources.

-Stacia Kuceyeski, Ohio History Connection

I spent thirty years teaching high school history in rural southern Ohio. My school district is probably similar to the school in your community. Engaging students in history has always been a challenge. Field trips are one traditional way to engage students with interesting historical places. Unfortunately with the "Great Recession" many schools found themselves unable to fund transportation for field trips. Additionally many states have mandated curriculum and testing which have cut into time for field trips. These factors have created a "perfect storm" to limit field trips for students. One possible solution may be around the corner from your neighborhood school, your local cemetery.


Students work to straighten and install Government headstones for African American Civil War Veterans.
Students work to straighten and install Government headstones for African American Civil War Veterans.

Cemeteries provide a glimpse into your community's past.  Students often think nothing of historical interest happened in their community. You may not have a Civil War battlefield in your community, but you might have Civil War Veterans buried in a nearby cemetery. Ohio has more than 14,000 cemeteries. I was fortunate because my community has three cemeteries, one of which is 1/2 mile from my high school. I would take my students on a "poor man's field trip," we would walk to the cemetery. The first time I told my students we were going to the cemetery, a student asked "Where is the bus???" I laughed, then we would walk to the cemetery and I would give students a walking tour of interesting people buried in our cemetery. In our cemetery there are African Americans born in slavery who served in the Union Army. Two men who were Medal of Honor recipients in the Civil War: a woman who was wife of famed inventor Granville Woods, the United States Attorney General for President Warren Harding and a World War I pilot killed in action in France. I would guess our local cemetery is no more interesting than yours. Every community has fascinating and unique history in their local cemetery.

One field trip to our local cemetery changed the trajectory of my students' relationship with our cemetery. I was explaining to my students why a section was called soldiers row. This particular section was for African American Civil War Veterans. A student raised her hand and asked "Don't these men deserve better," she was referring to the fact there were missing and broken headstones. That question began my students' transition from the role of observers to working in service learning, preservation and activism.

Over the next twelve years, multiple classes installed government headstones for Veterans with unmarked graves, researched and wrote text for Ohio Historical Markers, used ground penetrating radar to locate graves and placed 1400 flags on Veterans graves for Memorial Day. Our local cemetery became a laboratory for hands on history.

School districts are providing more and more connections with virtual education by putting computers in students' hands. Educators also need to provide students with connections to their community's rich and diverse past. Your local cemetery may provide a close and inexpensive tool for engaging your students.