White text on a green block reading AASLH Onsite Workshop Focusing on Visitors. Behind the green color block is a group of people standing facing away from the camera.

Workshop: Focusing on Visitors

Workshop Description

Visitors are central to our work, but how strategic and thoughtful are we in how we communicate and interact with them? How can we do a better job of engaging visitors when it comes to developing programs and exhibits in our organizations?

Keeping visitors at the forefront of our thinking, participants will explore a wide range of topics including audience types, program development and planning, developing/updating exhibits, marketing, evaluation, volunteer management and training, and collaboration. Case studies and interactive activities provide fun opportunities to engage with fellow participants and our host site. Attendees will leave the workshop with information, ideas, and materials they can take back to their organizations to adapt and apply.


FORMAT: On-site group workshop

LENGTH: Two days

DATE: June 11-12, 2020

LOCATIONThe Sixth Floor Museum, Dallas, TX

MATERIALS: Workshop materials will be provided upon registration and in-person at the event.

COST: $230 AASLH Members/$345 Nonmembers

OPEN REGISTRATION: December 19, 2019 - June 8, 2020; 30 participant limit

** Save $40 when you register by May 11, 2020 and use promo code EARLYBIRD20 at checkout! **


Who Should Attend This Workshop

This workshop is ideally suited for early-career museum educators, curators, volunteer managers, museum studies students, or dedicated volunteers who play a role in education, interpretation, exhibition planning, and/or public programming. Mid-career professionals can also benefit from revisiting the content covered in this workshop to help update and rethink programs and exhibits and gain insights on how to train and support newer staff.

"What Did the Women Do?": Using Museum Theatre to Share Multiple Perspectives from the Past

“What did the women do?” This question from our Executive Director was the beginning of our organization’s journey into Museum Theatre, and into a whole new way of approaching the subject of History altogether. I count myself as extremely lucky to be able to work in a job that allows me to put my love of history into practice every day.  My other love is theatre, especially playwriting, and I’d been pondering for some time how best to combine the two.  History is naturally dramatic, after all. The opportunity came in the form of an 1857 serial entitled “A Winter In the South” from Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. The travelogue, written by David Hunter Strother under the pen name “Porte Crayon,” provided a fictionalized account of the Broadacre family as they traveled from Virginia south for the winter. They stopped in Jonesborough for a moment, and the author remarked on its “architectural pretension” (Strother 1857, 606). The men in the group took off for adventures on Roan Mountain and it was determined that the women of the group having, “found themselves in comfortable quarters, should remain where they were” (Strother 1857, 722).  The rest of the serial follows the men on their journeys. This does beg the question, what did the women do?


My one woman show, “A Sojourn in Jonesborough” was the answer to that question. History is typically told from the men’s perspective, but the women are always there, you just have to read between the lines and study the context clues to find their stories.  I decided to tell the story from the perspective of Annette Broadacre, the family’s teenage daughter. The serial commented on the surprisingly superior shopping in Jonesborough, and our archives contain wonderful information on the town’s mercantile history.  I used resources from the Jonesborough/Washington County Archives and sources I found online, such as an 1858 receipt from J.A. Wilds & Son’s store that reflected an exchange of goods for bear skins, to help flesh out the Jonesborough that Annette would have experienced.  What would interest a girl of her time, of her age, of her social status?  I took all of these questions into consideration as I developed the script.  The end result was a thirty minute walk down Main Street Jonesborough in 1856 with Annette as the guide.  The show debuted for our members, but it has since traveled to various clubs and venues to help spread the history of Jonesborough from a woman’s perspective.


Since the premiere of “A Sojourn in Jonesborough,” the Heritage Alliance has expanded our use of Museum Theatre.  Our goal with these scripts is to always find the unspoken voice, the untold story, and to tell it, as best we can, using the sources we have available.  Our second production, “Things Are Changing,” took a local newspaper headline about women becoming teachers and used that theme to explore issues surrounding education, race, and gender in the late 1800s and early 1900s.  The play focused on Julia Bullard Nelson and the trials she faced as teacher and principal at the Warner Institute, a Freedmen’s school that operated in Jonesborough following the Civil War.

Every fall we get the chance to tell multiple stories through “A Spot On the Hill,” a play that takes place in the Old Jonesborough Cemetery.  Since 2014, “A Spot On the Hill” has shed light on the ordinary citizens of Jonesborough while raising money for cemetery preservation.  We share the well documented history of Dr. Cunningham who helped bring the railroad to town, alongside the history of Maria Breazeale, a young girl who left behind nothing but a beautiful epitaph on her tombstone.  Museum Theatre allows us to share these histories in a way that a museum exhibit does not.  Seeing a living person say the words, share the story, makes the history more personal, more relatable.  This was extremely evident last fall when we shared passages from the diary of Fanny Fain.  Her words warned of the dangers of a polarized nation, and several audience members asked if we’d written those words in response to the current political climate.  No, those words were written in 1863.


This past year, the Heritage Alliance produced “With These Hands,” our first full length play.  We hope to continue to grow our Museum Theatre program, to continue to tell these stories from different perspectives, and to continue to answer the question, “What did the women do?”

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

Webinar: Interpreting Native American History and Culture at Museums and Historic Sites

The Interpreting Native American History and Culture at Museums and Historic Sites webinar will provide strategies for engaging with Native Americans beyond the legal framework of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), in order to work collaboratively, share authority, and incorporate multiple ways of knowing about the past into all interpretation about Native people, objects, histories, and cultures.

Learn More

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.


Storify from #AASLHchat on Incorporating Pop Culture into Tours and Programming

Last week, AASLH hosted our very first #AASLHchat on Twitter. Our guest hosts, the Educators and Interpreters Affinity Community, created a great set of prompts on the subject of pop culture phenomena at museums and historic sites. The participation in our chat was almost overwhelming, with 67 users sending 500 tweets! Keep an eye on the AASLH calendar and Twitter account (@AASLH) to see when we'll be holding our next #AASLHchat. Meanwhile, here is a Storify of last week's discussion.

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.



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.

Gotta Catch ‘Em All: The Battle over Pokémon Go in Museums

Given the positive and negative stigma surrounding Pokémon Go I decided to write a follow-up to my original blog, “Engaging New Museum Audiences with Pokémon Go.” This past week we hosted our Pokémon Take Over the Fire Museum event and to my surprise it was a huge success. In a little over two hours we saw 170 visitors come through the museum, which is about 50% more than we regularly see during a First Fridays event. Going into last week I was nervous as to how successful our event was going to be as the hype surrounding the game had begun to dwindle and there were a variety of other activities going on in Downtown Aurora.


A new visitor  at the Aurora Regional Fire Museum
A new visitor at the Aurora Regional Fire Museum

During the event we had a variety of activities for everyone, young and old, to participate in. In addition to a scavenger hunt for miniature Pokémon and a how-to draw Pokémon activity, we developed a quiz that encouraged visitors to tour the whole museum to find the answers to ten questions about the history of firefighting and the Aurora Fire Department. I was pleasantly surprised by how many visitors took the quiz. One shock to me was that no one posted pictures of the Pokémon they found hidden or from the game. I was hoping for more of a buzz on social media, but visitors were definitely engaged with our exhibits.

One criticism of my last post was that I did not discuss how we were using this event to engage new audiences in our museum. All of the events we strive to do at the museum fall into one of two categories: mission driven or development. While this event has a mission component to it, it was a development event at its core. We sought to bring new visitors to the museum. Our main audience is families with young children and either retired firefighters or fire buffs. During our event we saw a higher amount of locals attending and even saw groups of teens come out to the museum to participate in the event. This event provided an opportunity to develop a new audience for the museum. Our visitors included segments of our community that we do not often serve in the museum and groups coming from other nearby towns. Those who participated and found Pokémon or took the quiz were entered in a raffle where we collected their emails for future marketing.


Raffle prizes at the Aurora Regional Fire Museum
Raffle prizes at the Aurora Regional Fire Museum

In addition to our event, the Warrenville Historical Society and the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County also hosted events earlier last week. The Warrenville Historical Society promoted their proximity to Pokémon and offered a Pokémon themed quest for five Pokémon hidden within the museum’s exhibits. Pokémon were placed with the exhibit and included quotes from their historical counterparts from Warrenville so visitors were able to learn a little bit of history.


 One of the five Pokémon hidden in the Warrenville Historical Society museum with a historical quote. Photo courtesy of Sara Phalen.
One of the five Pokémon hidden in the Warrenville Historical Society museum with a historical quote. Photo courtesy of Sara Phalen.

The Forest Preserve District of DuPage County on the other hand took a very hands-on approach. They held a Pokémon Party in the Preserve at their Mayslake Peabody Estate which features a gym and two Pokéstops. Their event incorporated archery demonstrations and insect education activities. The coolest part of their event was what they called ‘Weedle Races’. Staff used mealworms and had visitors race them. Chris Gingrich, Manager of Visitor Services and Experiences remarked that “it was a riot and seeing the kids picking up and choosing and naming their "Weedles" before the races got underway was a hoot.” They will be hosting another event at another preserve, St. James Farm on August 10.


Weedle Races at Mayslake Peabody Estate. Photo courtesy of Chris Gingrich.
Weedle Races at Mayslake Peabody Estate. Photo courtesy of Chris Gingrich.

One critic noted that, “even though they are in nature they are still glued to their phones instead of enjoying their surroundings.”  In thinking about this, it is true, but by museums and cultural institutions accepting augmented reality games and new technologies our visitors see that we are in-tune to the times and want to maintain our relevance. Not only are we trying out new programs, we are trying to build audiences and interest a new generation in museums.

While visitors may not be fully immersed in our site and the stories we have to tell, we capture their interest to some extent. Bringing new visitors to our sites is one of the largest challenges we collectively face and getting them in the door is half the battle. So while these events may be focused on current trends and developing audiences, they have components of our missions intertwined throughout. Just like in the game, we gotta catch ‘em all to ensure our place within our communities. Pokémon Go is just one way in which local museums can benefit from current interests of today’s youth.

What Taking History to Underserved Communities Taught Me About Museum Education

This summer, I am completing a fellowship program through The Columbus Foundation at the Ohio History Connection. I have been facilitating History to Go, an educational outreach program that goes to community centers and schools with history programming. The fellowship is ten weeks long, but these ten weeks are flying by. Despite the relatively short amount of time that I have been at the Ohio History Connection, I have learned quite a bit.


A Young Boy Trying the Water Yoke
A young boy tries out the water yoke


I’ve learned about the passion and hard work of my colleagues. I spend a considerable amount of time out of the office in order to facilitate History to Go, but when I am in the office I can see how hard everyone works. It’s apparent that they work this hard because they truly care and believe in what they do.

Smiling while playing with Jacob's ladder
Smiling while playing with Jacob's ladder

I’ve learned that the unlikeliest of artifacts can be relatable. My fellowship program is allowing me to take History to Go to those who normally wouldn’t have access to it. This means that I’ve taken History to Go to lower income and immigrant communities. Despite the fact that I am an immigrant from Greece and my supervisor is part Iranian, my supervisor and I were worried that the kids would not be able to connect to some of the programs, like Pioneer Life. However, I’ve learned that these artifacts were relatable to them. For example, when I went to a Nepalese community many of the children related to artifacts like the water yoke. Why? Well, some of the kids that had been born in Nepal had similar methods of carrying water when they had lived in Nepal. These Nepalese children related to the artifacts in ways that many other children may not be able to. The students may not have known about American pioneers to begin with, but once they learned about their way of life, they found similarities with their own lives.

Of course, this is not to say that students should not get the opportunity to learn about their own history. Some of the feedback that we have received is that it would be beneficial for there to be programming providing a diversity of perspectives. As History to Go continues to expand and develop, I know that it will do so with this mission in mind. I believe being able to teach about the history of more cultures would be beneficial to students of all backgrounds. While we already have programming that is focused on American Indians, we need to have even more programming that can showcase the experiences of many. Just as the Nepalese students found pioneer artifacts relatable, all students should have the opportunity to relate to a vast array of cultures.

A young girl showing off the necklace she made.
A young girl showing off the necklace she's made

I’ve learned about the stories of those around me. While working with people from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds, I’ve learned about them as individual human beings. One boy told me people get shot in his neighborhood when looking at musket balls. One girl told me that they had communal refrigerators at the refugee camp when talking about food preservation methods. One girl who was a volunteer told me about her journey to America and how she is now going to college at Ohio Dominican. The beautiful thing about working with people is hearing their stories. Some of their experiences are unlike my own; some of their experiences are similar to my own.

I think what educators can take away is that we are all human beings with our own stories that should be shared, acknowledged, and appreciated.

I’ve also learned about what if feels like to be appreciated.  I’ve always loved learning new information. By bringing enthusiasm and history to kids, I get to share that passion. That results in getting hugs, smiles, getting told “thank you for teaching us about history,” and even scrapbooks.

I’ve learned a lot so far through my experience. I am very fortunate that my fellowship program is helping to create connections with target communities in the Columbus, Ohio area. I can’t wait for the outreach and programming that the Ohio History Connection and the wonderful people who work here will continue to do.

If you’d like to read more about my fellowship experience, please look at The Columbus Foundation fellowship blog.


Thank You Scrapbook
Thank You Scrapbook


Bringing Women's History into the Classroom: The 2016 George Washington Teacher Institute

Since 1999, the George Washington Teacher Institute at Mount Vernon provides teachers across the country with historical thinking skills and in-depth content about George Washington and the 18th century. The Teacher Institute is comprised of six different residential weeks, each with a lead scholar, teacher facilitator, and a Mount Vernon expert. This year, based on feedback from program alumni, each of the summer teacher programs were revamped to focus on a different thematic approach. We found that in classrooms across the country, teachers are looking for new and interesting ways to teach history, including the incorporation of more women’s history. And, while teachers want to include more women’s history, they weren’t always confident with the content or sources to present it to their students. It was this need that encouraged us to create a week devoted to women’s history entitled Martha Washington and the Women of the 18th Century. [1]


Teachers received an in-depth tour of the kitchen at Mount Vernon by the Mount Vernon Interpretive Staff. Photo by Jackie Jecha.
Teachers received an in-depth tour of the kitchen at Mount Vernon by the Mount Vernon Interpretive Staff. Photo by Jackie Jecha.

The Mount Vernon estate is uniquely positioned to offer a women’s week. While Mount Vernon centers around life and legacy of George Washington, if it wasn’t for a group of ambitious women led by Ann Pamela Cunningham called the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association (MVLA) in the 1850s and 1860s purchasing and preserving the historic estate, much of the story of George Washington could have been lost. Though the estate itself may be focused on telling the story of Washington, his story cannot be told without the inclusion of women, including his wife, Martha Washington, and the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association. [2]


Photograph of the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, circa 1873, taken by Leet Brothers.
Photograph of the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, circa 1873, taken by Leet Brothers.

We began our Martha Washington and the Women of the 18th Century week with a planning session featuring the Mount Vernon Education staff, our lead scholar, Dr. Carol Berkin (Presidential Professor of History, Emerita, City University of New York), a teacher facilitator, and a Mount Vernon expert. During the planning meeting, we concluded that we would use the week to tell the story of all women-including the enslaved population and American Indians-using Martha Washington’s biography as a chronological guide. The ultimate goal of the institute was to create a solid foundation of women’s 18th century history and provide classroom strategies that teachers can immediately implement in their classrooms.

The four-day, four-night institute began by examining women’s history methodology to explain the evolution of the current historiography, specifically acknowledging the sources and scholarship that have given a voice and agency to women of the 18th century. It wasn’t until the 1960s that we started to see the emergence of colonial women’s history through scholars such as Mary Beth Norton, Carol Berkin, and Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. We know that the voices of women are not always as easy to find as men, but we can locate them in both written sources and material culture. Throughout the week, we highlighted those sources - including diaries, probate records, and cloth samples - and provided strategies for using them in the classroom.


Members of the Piscataway Tribe outlined their matrilineal society and discussed the role of women in their modern-day society. Photo by Jackie Jecha.
Members of the Piscataway Tribe outlined their matrilineal society and discussed the role of women in their modern-day society. Photo by Jackie Jecha.

It was important to all of us involved in the planning session that the week did not solely focus on Martha Washington; while she is a big part of the story, the story of women in the 18th century goes beyond Martha’s experience. The story includes the enslaved population that worked and lived at Mount Vernon and throughout the colonies. And, the larger story also includes the American Indians who inhabited the land that Mount Vernon is located upon. On the final full day of the institute, the teachers were joined by members of the Cedarville Band of Piscataway Indians who discussed their history and highlighted their matrilineal society.

During the institute, teachers also received VIP tours of the historic estate. The estate experiences were curated to provide the women’s perspective of specific places on the property. The mansion tour highlighted objects and spaces used by women within the home, both by family members and enslaved workers, while the garden tour examined the private and public lives of women on the estate. Participants received an in-depth tour of the kitchen outbuilding, while the Pioneer Farm tour looked at the experience of women who worked the land, emphasizing that it was women who primarily worked the fields at Mount Vernon.


In the Greenhouse, Caroline Brannum (portrayed by Brenda Parker) met with the teachers and discussed life as an enslaved woman at George Washington's Mount Vernon. Photo by Jackie Jecha.

On the final day, we looked at the legacy of Martha Washington and the role of 18th century women in revolutionary America. Even though women were committed to the new nation and participated in the revolutionary cause, they still gained no legal or civil rights in the process. Teachers also learned about the leadership and legacy of the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, the governing board that continues to preserve and manage the estate of George Washington in order to use his example of character and leadership to inform and inspire future generations. Since 1858, when the house was first purchased by the MVLA, the Ladies have continued to preserve the mansion, the land surrounding it, and even the land across the Potomac River to keep Washington’s 18th century view intact. The ongoing commitment of the MVLA to preserve and explore Washington’s legacy is also evident in the 2013 opening of the Fred. W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington to encourage additional scholarship and education about Washington through academic fellowships, leadership programs, and teacher professional development.

Our goal by the end of the week was that teachers would have the confidence to bring more women’s history into the classroom through primary sources, including material culture. Over the course of four days, teachers were immersed in women’s history and primary sources to illustrate that Mount Vernon and the late 18th century isn’t just the story of George Washington and the other Founding Fathers, but rather, a holistic story that includes the women who sacrificed just as much - or more - as their male counterparts during the 18th century.

To learn more about the educational programs and resources at George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate, visit us at http://www.mountvernon.org/education/.


[1]  Other Teacher Institute themes include George Washington and the Founding of the U.S. Government and Slavery in George Washington's World.

[2]  The Mount Vernon Ladies' Association (MVLA) continues to govern and oversee George Washington's Mount Vernon. It was the first national historic preservation organization and is the oldest women's patriotic society in the United States. Today, the Board of Regents consists of twenty-seven women, each one representing a different state.