Online Course: Museum Education and Outreach

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.

COURSE DATES: October 8 - December 3, 2018

COST: $195 AASLH Members / $295 Nonmembers

OPEN REGISTRATION: August 8 - September 28, 2018; 30 Person Limit

Register Here

Course Logistics

FORMAT: Online, weekly-paced course

LENGTH: 8 Weeks

PARTICIPATION STYLE: Bi-weekly (every-other-week) real-time online chats; weekly assignments; final course assignment

MATERIALS: One required text

CREDIT: Successful completion of this course will earn one credit toward the Small Museum Pro! certificate from AASLH.

Description & Outcomes

This course requires regular check-ins, sharing and commenting on peer work, and participation in scheduled live chats. Various assignments are made throughout the course to allow for regular feedback and dialogue. While work can be done at your own pace, meeting deadlines is encouraged to maximize the experience.

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

Sample Curriculum

  • 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

Texts Used

Required:

Anna Johnson, Kimberly A. Huber, Nancy Cutler, Melissa Bingmann and Tim Grove. The Museum Educator’s Manual: Educators Share Successful Techniques (2nd ed). The text is NOT INCLUDED with your registration. You must order the book separately from the book seller of your choice.

Who Should Attend this Online 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.

Register Here  

Instructor

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, 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.

 


Online Course: Museum Education and Outreach

At their heart, regardless of type or size, museums are educational organizations. This course is about how we can facilitate visitors’ meaningful and memorable experiences in the informal environments of museums. SMALL MUSEUM PRO_Layout 2

Details: 

This class is now full. Please see our Continuing Education calendar for future offerings.

Dates: June 5- July 31, 2017

Cost: $195 AASLH Members/ $295 Nonmembers

This class is now full. Please see our Continuing Education calendar for future offerings.

At their heart, regardless of type or size, museums are educational organizations. This course is about how we can facilitate visitors’ meaningful and memorable experiences in the informal environments of museums.

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

Possible topics include:

  • Week 1: Our Memorable Museum Learning Experiences
  • Week 2: Museum Audiences: Characteristics and Needs, and Learning
  • Week 3: Interpretation Strengths, Weaknesses, and Best Practices
  • Week 4: Organizing of Museum Education and Outreach
  • Week 5: Education Program Planning, Management, and Evaluation
  • Week 6: Developing Programs for Youths, Families, and Adults
  • Week 7: Managing Museum Education Staff and Volunteers
  • Week 8: Action Plan for Future Programming at your Museum

Required text: Anna Johnson, Kimberly A. Huber, Nancy Cutler, Melissa Bingmann and Tim Grove. The Museum Educator's Manual: Educators Share Successful Techniques. Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press, 2009 (Paperback ISBN 13: 978-0-7591-1167-7) (About $27.00).

 This class is now full. Please see our Continuing Education calendar for future offerings.

Who should attend:

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 completion of this course will earn one credit toward the Small Museum Pro certificate from AASLH.

Faculty:

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, 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.


Real World History: Formal Learning in Museums and Historic Sites

A Real World History student at the Phillips Collection

The idea for Real World History came to me on a bus, and like so many good ideas, I borrowed it from someone else. Retired northern Virginia history teacher Jim Percoco, wrote a wonderful book called A Passion for the Past, which I started reading on the bus ride home from a summer teacher workshop. Page 11 set my brain on fire: Jim wrote about the applied history course he'd created with an internship component. I thought the idea was genius, but I was also bothered by the notion of students from the Washington, D.C., suburbs coming into the city and "taking" internships at museums and historic sites to which D.C. students needed exposure. I’ll never forget one of my first field trips in D.C.; I had to help one of my students buy a fare card because she had never ridden the Metro before.

When I started work working at Center for Inspired Teaching, I realized that I had an opportunity to create my own applied history course for D.C. students that would connect them to our city’s many museums. Such a class would be a perfect opportunity to further Inspired Teaching’s work around engagement-based instruction and the idea of the “student as expert.” Students would be able to “get their hands dirty” with history.

Real World History, launched in the fall of 2014, serves 15-30 students each year from high schools around the city. It is D.C.’s only citywide, credit-bearing course. During the fall semester, we come together twice a week to study the Great Migration via an oral history project. Each student interviews a Black Washingtonian who moved here before 1970, records and transcribes their interviews, and writes an analysis and reflection paper. In December, staff members from museums and historic sites visit our class, and each student interviews with three to four sites. After those interviews, I work with the students and partners to make internship placements for the spring semester. Currently, students are interning at the following sites, among others:

  • Ford’s Theatre
  • National Archives
  • National Museum of American History
  • Newseum
  • President Lincoln’s Cottage
  • White House Historical Association

Next, you’ll read the perspectives of three people involved with different aspect of the program: an internship supervisor, a former student named Nora, and a parent. Nora’s internship experience lived up to what I had dreamed for the students when I first imagined Real World History: she conducted original research at a historic site and presented it to docents; it is now part of every public tour.

 

Michelle Martz, Program Coordinator at President Lincoln's Cottage, interviews a RWH student.

Internship Supervisor Perspective

Tudor Place was thrilled to welcome an intern from the Real World History program last year. Nora matched our enthusiasm for history and embarked on research into one of the mansion’s most prominent owners, Britannia Peter Kennon. She took a women’s history angle on Britannia’s long widowhood and independence and contributed valuable information to the site. Nora also stepped outside of her comfort zone and learned to give tours as a volunteer docent. Her skills grew over the course of the semester, and by the end, we considered her a colleague in public history.

-Laura Brandt, Education Coordinator, Tudor Place Historic House and Garden

Student Perspective

When I arrived at Tudor Place as its first high school intern, I was intrigued by Britannia's story… Born at Tudor Place in the early years of the new republic, Britannia lived for nearly a century. Her decades-long ownership of Tudor Place, from 1854 to 1911, preserved its history and legacy for future generations. She was widowed fourteen months into her marriage and never remarried. In a time when the social status of women was so closely connected to the status of their fathers or husbands, why didn’t Britannia remarry? What might her motivations have been? These questions formed the basis of my research project for Tudor Place and the culmination of a year of Real World History.

-Nora Pehrson, Student, Colby College

Parent Perspective

Our daughter gained so much from her participation in Real World History. When she began, she was a newly arrived immigrant and not familiar with American history or the Civil Rights movement. She was often shocked at what she learned, but it gave her much insight into issues facing the U.S. today. It gave her context for understanding race issues and a foundation of comprehension that she will need as an outsider integrating into society.

The program allowed the students to see history as a story unfolding, with characters they could relate to. The interview process allowed the students to engage with an individual who had been through difficult times and been successful personally and professionally. The internship was a wonderful opportunity to practice speaking to the public about things she learned.

-Dawn Tanner, mother of 2015-16 student Oportuna Irabaruta

As we prepare for our fourth year, we look to expand the number of participating museums and historic sites and to help other localities open their doors to high school interns. At its best, programs like this will change not only the lives of young people but the institutions in which they intern.

https://youtu.be/KNxJDcbOg6c?list=PLj88VapN273xySK4GVCIBFt4VwPqXkw3q

Cosby Hunt is a native Washingtonian and the Senior Teaching & Learning Officer at the Center for Inspired Teaching. He is the course creator and instructor for Real World History and also works with BLISS: Building Literacy in the Social Studies. He taught social studies for 13 years at Columbia Heights Educational Campus, where he led the department as well as the tennis and debate teams. Cosby became National Board certified in 2006.

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


Interpreting Slavery with Children and Teens: Researchers Seek Input from the Field for a New AASLH Book

A school tour at Gunston Hall.

In our travels to promote our first book, Interpreting Slavery at Museums and Historic Sites, and lead workshops on the subject, we’ve received a lot of inquiries as to how to talk with young visitors and school groups about slavery. Hearing these requests for help prompted us to launch our next research project/book, Interpreting Slavery with Children and Teens.  The book (AASLH Series, Rowman and Littlefield, Fall 2018) will provide museums and historic sites with best practices for interpreting slavery, including the latest methodology and pedagogy for interpreting the subject with children and teens. We will investigate how museum educators can apply educational theories, such as constructivism and social skills like empathy, to help children and teens make meaning out of the difficult history of slavery.

As part of our research, we are surveying historic sites and museums who have a relationship with the subject matter. This is a follow-up to the survey we did in 2011 to gauge where the field was with interpreting slavery in general. Through this new survey, we want to continue to explore the concerns of the field in the interpretation of slavery, especially with children and teens; strategies you may have to share with the field; and what sort of support and resources sites need.

Take the survey here: http://ow.ly/9zj3309s8o0

We are also asking you to share this survey link with colleagues at other historic sites to gather as much information as possible.

Thank you for your help.

_______________________

Interpreting Slavery at Museums and Historic Sites was published in 2017 in the AASLH Series at Rowman and Littlefield. AASLH members get 20% off all AASLH Series books at Rowman and Littlefield. Interpreting Slavery aims to move the field forward in its collective conversation about the interpretation of slavery—acknowledging the criticism of the past and acting in the present to develop an inclusive interpretation of slavery. Presenting the history of slavery in a comprehensive and conscientious manner is difficult and requires diligence and compassion—for the history itself, for those telling the story, and for those hearing the stories—but it’s a necessary part of our collective narrative about our past, present, and future.


Be Relevant: Get Involved in National History Day

National History Day (NHD) was created in 1974 by a professor at Case Western Reserve University to combat the decline of the humanities in school curricula. It evolved into annual nationwide competitions held at the regional, state, and national levels with middle and high school competitors creating papers and projects on a designated theme; the competitions are designed to give great weight to historical accuracy and the use of primary sources.

 

Parade of States and the ational level of NHD
Parade of States and the ational level of NHD

Today, about 700,000 students from every US state, Guam, American Samoa, China, Singapore, South Korea, and Guatemala participate each year in the categories of research paper, exhibit, website, documentary, and performance. Students may work individually or in a group of up to five people. They will compete in a junior (middle school) or senior (high school) division. Students come from public, private, and home-schools.  The goal is to reach the annual competition at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Most of the competitors at NHD are coached by history teachers at public and private schools. Home-schooled students  rely on their parents for coaching.  SO WHERE ARE THE MUSEUMS IN THIS EQUATION?

Some state historical societies serve as the State Coordinators, but it is curious to me why more museums and historic sites do not become involved in coaching NHD teams. Museums, after all, are the repositories of millions of primary sources from documents to photos to sound recordings and artifacts.  Curators KNOW how to analyze primary sources, how to look beyond, to compare and corroborate. So where are the museums? Why not open our doors and our collections to these bright young minds and help guide them in creating amazing projects?

This year the staff of Hickory Hill was asked by a home school parent to coach her 6th grader for the competition. We sent out notes to educators we see frequently on field trips and for outreach to invite their students to form a team because NHD is not part of the offerings in our local districts.

Three young ladies decided to see projects through to completion; two were home-schooled and one came from a public middle school. We spent after school hours with each of the students helping them identify locations for strong primary sources, teaching them to analyze those sources, editing bibliographies and process papers, and working with them to fine tune their projects: one Junior website, one Junior performance, and one Senior exhibit.  Happily, there was not a Wikipedia entry in sight!

 

Georgia Students Coached by Hickory Hill
Georgia Students Coached by Hickory Hill

The young ladies wowed the judges and took Firsts in each of their divisional categories.  They went on to compete at the State competition with our young performer advancing to the National competition in Maryland.  That same young lady competed against hundreds of students to win 2nd place in the Junior Individual Performance category at the National event!

According to the NHD website, competing students have even changed history. Three 16-year-old students in Illinois produced a group documentary on the murders of three Civil Rights workers in Mississippi in 1964. This led the U.S. Congress to pass a bipartisan resolution calling on federal prosecutors to reopen the high profile case. Because of these students’ exhaustive research–reviewing more than 2,000 documents and conducting dozens of interviews–more than 40 years later, in 2005, the FBI’s original prime suspect, Edgar Ray Killen was finally arrested, tried, and convicted of murdering James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman.

 

NHD Medalists from Georgia
NHD Medalists from Georgia

We may not change history, but by getting involved in National History Day museums and historic sites can be more relevant to their communities. Will it take staff time? Yes. Will it take brain power? Yes. Will you build good will, new audiences, and potential donors? ABSOLUTELY!

Get involved at  www.nhd.org

 


Cracking the Nut to Reach Large Urban School Districts

As outreach educators in the museum world, many of us dream of taking our programs to large urban school districts in our regions but often have difficulty “cracking the nut” to break into the system. And why not? We have great success with these programs in other schools and populations, so shouldn’t we strive to bring them to the students who could use them most? Whatever our goals, reaching these teachers and classrooms often proves a daunting task, leaving museum outreach educators frustrated and discouraged. It’s a vicious cycle not unlike what people inside the system are experiencing themselves. Here are some ideas for aligning yourself with their needs, goals, and expectations to help break down those barriers:

Salle de classe, salle d'examen

Be Prepared and Speak the Language
Hopefully you already have some data and testimonials to work with. Comb your most recent evaluations and put together a simple 1-page document to highlight what your program can bring. This will be your foundation, and using this data you believe in your program 100%. If you are not doing this then honestly you have already lost. Use the language of your state department of education and the schools you are targeting. Education trends and terms shift like the wind, so study up on the latest ideas and tailor your language to fit what they are already talking about.

Go in with a Plan
Now, what can you offer to these teachers and students? Having a multi-tiered implementation strategy will help you adjust later when you are finally working with teachers and students. What is your dream scenario of implementation to the extent that you could realistically support a quality program for teachers and students? What sounds a little more realistic based on what you expect to hear back? What is the bare minimum that you could live with and call it a success? Thinking about these three possibilities will help you react to unexpected scenarios later.

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Approach from Multiple Angles and Find Allies
Finding an ally inside of the school system and inside schools will probably be the biggest step in the process, and those people might not be who you expect. Larger school systems often have more support positions at school and administration levels including curriculum coaches, literacy coaches, media specialists, professional development coordinators, and PR specialists. Your first friend on the inside probably won’t be a classroom teacher – they are probably too busy to talk to you. Find allies who will vouch for you using your data and your passion for your work.

Expect Setbacks
You will be told “no” a lot. You will be ignored even more. Others will show legitimate interest in what you can offer and realize they do not have time for it later. Things change, a lot. In the History Day world we say “start small” a lot so as to not overwhelm a new teacher. It’s ok for us to do that too. Take this as a challenge to succeed elsewhere.

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Be the Reflective Practitioner
You are prepared, you are passionate, you are finding your allies, and you are getting told “no” a lot. Now for the most important part of how we get anything done as museum outreach educators: you are the reflective practitioner. Listen to what your allies, teachers, students, and colleagues are telling you and capitalize on your opportunities. Chances are your program, where it is implemented, looks drastically different from where you have used it elsewhere or maybe what you expected. This is great!

Celebrate and Build on your Successes
Congratulations on implementing your program into a new and tough school! Take a moment to appreciate what students are getting out of the program, but know this is also your chance to build on this success for the future. Be prepared to evaluate your program to gather data from the students and teachers you have been targeting all along with this project. Now you have data straight from the source to share with your new allies, teachers, colleagues, and administrators at these schools. This is your next step for building the future!


Latest Addition to Brooklyn Historical Society's Digital Curriculum Investigates Dutch "Breukelen"

The Brooklyn Historical Society (AASLH member since 1999) recently announced the release of Dutch Breukelen: Where Brooklyn Began, the latest publication in BHS’s growing digital curriculum library. Designed to transform 2nd – 8th grade classrooms into learning labs about seventeenth-century Brooklyn, Dutch Breukelen contains primary sources (maps, diaries, cookbooks, account ledgers, and drawings) and prompts that will spark curiosity about the early colonial origins of New York’s most populous borough. It is available free of cost via the organization’s website.

BHS.DBCRC.Book2.indbDutch Breukelen complements and enhances a growing body of curricula about colonial-era New York City — much of which focuses on the growth of New Amsterdam on the southern tip of Manhattan,” said Emily Potter-Ndiaye, Director of Education for BHS. “But Brooklyn’s story is unique, and has regional, national, and even international repercussions.”

The dynamic curriculum enables learners to investigate case studies of Brooklyn’s five original Dutch towns: Breukelen (Brooklyn), Boswijck (Bushwick), Nieuw Amersfoort (Flatlands), Midwout (Flatbush), and New Utrecht (Nieuw Utrecht). Along the way, they will meet a range of colonial-era residents, for example Francisco de Neger, who began his life in the New World enslaved by the Dutch West India company, but successfully petitioned for his freedom and became a founder of the town of Boswijck (today’s Bushwick). These investigations have broad resonance about power-laden interactions in the communities of the New World. The topics included will address formative questions, including:

  • What was the relationship between European colonists and Native Americans on Long Island and how — through land transfer, conflicting definitions of property ownership, disease, and war — were the Lenni Lenape dispossessed of their land here?
  • Where and how did women access power and exert rights in the New World and how did laws governing family and women shift between Dutch and British rule? How did Brooklyn’s remoteness allow for perpetuation of de facto Dutch practices?
  • How did enslaved and freed Africans experience life in the New Netherlands colony and where can we find evidence of their families and legacies?
  • What kinds of traditional water management skills did the Dutch bring to Brooklyn and how did that shape their transformations of Brooklyn’s waterfront?

“We are thrilled to support Brooklyn Historical Society in its development of this ground breaking curriculum,” said Rob de Vos, Consul General of the Netherlands in New York. “Using the innovative materials made available on-line, students will be able to explore the many ways in which Dutch culture shaped the city we know today.”

Dutch Breukelen: Where Brooklyn Began is made possible through the generous support of the Dutch Culture USA program by the Consulate General of the Netherlands in New York. It was produced by the Education Department at Brooklyn Historical Society under the project management of Manager of Teaching and Learning Shirley Brown Alleyne in collaboration with curriculum writer Claudia Ocello, archaeologist Alyssa Loorya, graphic designer Carl Petrosyan, and BHS’s Library and Archives and Public History Departments.

Dutch Breukelen: Where Brooklyn Began is available on brooklynhistory.org  free of cost.


About Brooklyn Historical Society

brooklyn historical societyFounded in 1863, Brooklyn Historical Society is a nationally recognized urban history center dedicated to preserving and encouraging the study of Brooklyn's extraordinary 400-year history. Located in Brooklyn Heights and housed in a magnificent landmark building designed by George Post and opened in 1881, today's BHS is a cultural hub for civic dialogue, thoughtful engagement and community outreach.

 


When History Doesn’t Matter

I was recently thrown for a loop when a member of my team suggested that I present at an upcoming conference with the theme “When History Doesn’t Matter.” When making the suggestion they said something to effect of “Because that’s your thing!”

Wait… what? I know I’ve only been with the Ohio History Connection for two years, and I know before this I was working at a Natural History Museum…which is a bit different. But really? Do they think that I think that history doesn’t matter?

Then I thought about it. And they were right. Let me explain...

1017112_10151731484539345_397010951_nOhio Village is a replicated town originally constructed in the bicentennial boom that gave us so many living history sites. At first the site interpreted daily life in the 1840s. After closing for several years, the site reopened in 2012 with a focus on the 1860s. Interpretation moved through the Civil War, year by year until the 150th anniversary in 2015.

With this end in sight, in 2014 we took a step back and asked “what’s next?” Do we stop in 1865 and just go into a loop? Do we start the Civil War all over again? Where in time are we going? We didn’t have the confines of a “real” site with provenance to guide us. The freedom felt a bit like standing on the edge of a cliff.

In my role as Site Director for Ohio Village, one of the first projects I undertook with my fantastic team was a SWAT analysis exploring the experience that we craft for the public. I wanted us to figure out what our game was first. Then we’d rewrite the rules. Over the course of several department meetings, and a few workshop-style lunches, we hashed out the framework. We looked at our organizational mission. We asked ourselves if that was the goal, then how did our work make it happen?

This led to articulating a philosophy about our work. At the core of this philosophy were shared tenets of dynamism, dialog, connection, questioning, play, and the keystone of relevancy. We are embracing our talent as storytellers to start a relationship.

History provides us with the foundation for those stories, but we realized that our work had nothing to do with learning a specific history. It wasn’t about the Civil War, or even the 1840s. It was about how history works, and how stories work. That’s our game. That’s the magic.

Ohio History Village
Ohio Village

The passion that these conversations unlocked among our team was palpable. The energy is pushing us forward as we prepare to travel in time. A trip that will cost a lot of money, take a lot of work, and needs to be complete in a few short months.

Are we worried, sure, maybe about finding enough functioning cook stoves of the right vintage. But not about the story.  Why should we worry? History doesn’t matter.  After all, it's not just "The History" that matters, it's what we do with it, and how we engage our audiences with it.

On May 28, 2016, Ohio Village will open its doors for the summer season. The year will be 1898.

Thoughts on this blog?  Share your comments below!


"What I’m Looking for in a Museum Visit": The Seasoned Museum-Goer

Sometimes, people who start out as our visitors become something more: volunteers, collaborators, contractors, the list goes on and on. In 1999, Ken and Ruth Cooper visited us at the Homestead Museum for the first time. Shortly thereafter, they pitched the idea of Ken instructing an introductory watercolor workshop followed by an exhibit of paintings he’d create inspired by the museum. They brought a wonderful portfolio to show us filled with examples of Ken’s work in the U. S. and England. Ruth, a retired teacher and theatre manager, and Ken’s publicist extraordinaire, was a delight to work with. She clearly understood how non-profits worked and had great admiration for them. To this day, we proudly display Ken’s work in our office buildings.

 

Walter P. Temple Memorial Mausoleum by Ken Cooper
Ken Cooper’s painting of the Walter P. Temple Memorial mausoleum at the Homestead Museum. You never know what kind of talents visitors will bring your way!

 

Since that first meeting, they have visited the museum close to a dozen times to see what we’ve been up to (they often seek refuge from trying Michigan winters in sunny California). A topic of conversation that always comes up is where they’ve been since we last saw them. These days, their travels take them all over the U. S., and historic sites are always on the list of places to explore. Their perspective, as seasoned museum-goers, may not be that of your “average museum visitor,” but many people who visit our sites fall into this category. They are passionate, they have expectations, they seek things out, and they are advocates for places like ours. Recently, I asked them a few questions about their observations and preferences when visiting historic sites. Their answers focused on two things: people and objects.

What makes or breaks your visit to a historic site?

The guides and staff, absolutely!

What are the most exciting changes you've seen in history museums over the years? 

More attention to detail and better visitor facilities. Ken adds that he prefers the eclectic approach where all that was there over the years remains there. He also doesn't like that objects are removed and replaced with written commentary.  He says he can learn more from the objects than something more to read and that he does his reading about the place before or after he goes there.

What's your biggest pet peeve when it comes to visiting a museum?

Guides who stick to their "canned" program/information, are inflexible, and aren't excited about the place and being a guide there.

Do you prefer self-guided or guided experiences when visiting historic sites? Please explain.

We greatly prefer self-guided tours (because of the aforementioned inflexible guides).  And our favorite tours are at the British National Trust's historic sites where we guide ourselves through the house, but there are docents in the rooms ready to answer any question we might have—or look it up in the book they have if they don't know the answer. (Their books, loose-leaf binders which have been laboriously, we’re sure, put together by staff are really detailed with all the information available on the house and its contents and owners.)

Their comments about how interpreters can make or break an experience echo many others I’ve heard and read about. Last year I wrote a blog post inspired by a friend’s comment on Facebook when he said: “Hanging out at Grant Wood’s studio where he painted most of his major works. For the record, volunteer docents really rock when they show passion and demonstrate real knowledge.” This summer, another friend shared how staff at the National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Air Force facilitated an experience that her family would never forget. She thanked staff by name: Mr. Allen, Mr. Jim, and Mr. Roland. People made these experiences great: people who didn’t stick to the norm; people who were flexible; people who were excited to share! There was no canned presentation in either of these cases, but even if a presentation does need to be somewhat “canned,” I think good interpreters can make it look and sound like it was made just for the group they are engaging with at that moment.

Ken and Ruth Cooper at home in Manistee, Michigan, helping out with the annual Victorian Sleighbell Parade.
Ken and Ruth Cooper at home in Manistee, Michigan, helping out with the annual Victorian Sleighbell Parade.

As for objects—wow—what a conversation there is to be had here! Some people, like Ken, want to see it all. Others are overwhelmed by seeing the whole kit and caboodle and prefer to have some guidance about how to interact with and experience an exhibit. Personally, I think that’s up to an institution to decide. At the Homestead, for example, we’ve recently revamped public tours of our historic houses to feature specific objects that we use to direct the narrative of our story. An 1854 Colt pistol is on permanent display for the first time, not because it’s eye-catching and belonged to a family member connected to our site, but because it is also representative of turmoil in Los Angeles as it struggled to become a major America city on the Western frontier. It’s symbolic of technology’s impact on society, and the object is relevant to issues and concerns that residents of Los Angeles face today. Objects are powerful players in our stories. We, as institutions, need to be clear about the roles we want them to play in the stories we share with visitors, and we need to be able to answer questions about them as best we can. Sometimes that will mean having something like the Trust’s book to consult, or saying “I don’t know, but let’s find out.”

Thanks for sharing your observations, Ken and Ruth. You’re not alone in your thinking, and you’ve given us more to ponder as a field. See you in December!


Chime In: Museum Education in History Museums

The Educators and Interpreters Committee occasionally receives questions from the field at large that we feel should go out to a bigger pool of practitioners to answer. As a result, we've created a new occasional blog post called "Chime In." If questions resonate with you, or you have a strong opinion, we encourage you (yes, you!) to share your thoughts.

Here are a couple of questions to get us started:

I’m curious to learn more about who is shaking things up in museum ed, especially in history museums. Any new practitioners out there? Any amazing, adventurous museum ed programs/departments that you’re hearing about?

What is museum education in a history museum…public programs, school programs, teacher professional development, interpreter training, evaluation, distance learning, outreach, school field trips…. Is that the state of the art?

Committee members Christopher Grisham, from the Tennessee State Museum, and Megan Wood, from the Ohio History Connection chimed in.

Megan: Here are some things in the field I admire:

- I love the "You are theres" at the Indiana Historical Society- great stuff 
- I honestly really dig the museum theater that the Fraizer in Louisville, KY, is doing. I was impressed with what they put out with their staff size.
Crystal Bridges (while not history) seems to be doing pretty amazing things. They've got a distance learning program (and obviously resources), but I've been impressed with all the staff I've met there.
- I would be remiss not to mention Lincoln's Cottage's programs. They're pretty awesome and impactful.
- I also think the Missouri History Museum is doing a great job of connecting to their community.
 
You Are There
Historic photographs come to life as part of the Indiana Historical Society's "You Are There" experience.

 

Christopher: We are currently in the early stages of building a new museum that will require us to restructure and expand our staff. As of now, we have a education/public programs department that works with school groups on various programs. We have been discussing what we envision our new staff to look like. Personally I want an education department that continues very much like we do now with a separate public programs (Community Engagement) staff that handles weekly events for families and adults. I would also love to have one or two staff members that would be mobile and constantly out at various schools and groups.
 
Now let's hear from you out there! Toot your own horn, send a shout out to an organization or individual who you think is doing something special—and share your thoughts on what constitutes museum education in a history museum right here, or via email to members of Educators & Interpreters committee. Thank you!