Thursday, December 15, 2016

Living History Museums

Living History Museums: An Overview

Throughout the U.S. my wife Carla and I have been able to visit  a bountiful number of museums and historical sites  that capture  the history of our country, finding them engaging and educational experiences.

   For sixty-four years we have traveled extensively, even more often as we are now both retired psychologists.   For the past  nineteen years I has written a weekly Venture Bound travel column for the Columbia Daily Tribune.  For the last ten years Carla has been co-author.

One of the benefits of this kind of traveling is that adults along with children (we have four) learn more about our history--the struggles and the progress we have made to reach this point in history-- and also to appreciate in many ways how fortunate we are in living at this time. 

At Conner Prairie we interacted with authentic member of the Delaware tribe who spoke the original Delaware language.

  The staff at living history  museums strive for authenticity as they drop us back into the past.  Many of the museums are original buildings, often transported in from around the state at considerable expense.  They are filled with original furniture and tools, and if more artifacts are needed, they are made on the grounds using original techniques.  Most living history museums limit themselves to one period in history. 

 We are impressed by the variety in the approaches taken by the staffs to entertain and teach us.  We especially enjoy talking with re-enactors who take on the characteristics and dress of someone from the past and discuss with us what their lives were like--what they were proud of, what problems they were struggling with, and what dishes, tools,  and equipment they used.

  We enjoyed seeing how the children were treated, for example, the Conner Prairie Interactive History Park in Indiana, where children can drop back to the 1830s to dip candles, play with hoops, and get a chance to pump an old fashioned lathe to help a wood worker make table legs.   Children can pet the animals, the only jarring feature from the future was the hand sanitizer to use after the petting.

In Old Bedford, Pennsylvania, we went back to the 1820s where we discussed burial customs with the cabinet maker, watched the pharmacist mix his meds for the day and attended a church service.  

Most of the  museums focus on a particular time period.  There is a great deal of interest among over 50-year-olds in studying their family history. They are able to get a very clear picture of how those  ancestors lived and the kind of problems they faced.

We were delighted to talk to the costumed re-enactors  from different periods of time at the American Frontier Culture in Staunton, Virginia.  Farm buildings had been brought in from five foreign countries and showed how their cultures and way of life converged to create an American farm of the 1850s. 

Eight state history museums or sites, on the other hand,  presented a broad view of the states' histories using a variety of modern techniques for educating and entertaining  visitors. Most states have magnificent displays of original artifacts often in striking new buildings that also include the states' historical archives.

At various sites we saw costumed manikins who could talk, listened to audio tours, watched short movies that captured real events in the state's history, and saw newspaper clippings, posters, and even an occasional holograph that made the figures more real than 3D.

For more recent history we are now presented with oral recordings and movies made since the twenties that inform us about life in the depression, laborers revolting against management and the problems with race relations. 

 Most state history museums take us back in time to at least the time of Native Americans, and some like the Indiana State History Museum go back in time to the development of coal and a museum  in Arizona goes back to the age of the dinosaur. 

Other history museums took us to a specific critical event in our history such as the development of the atomic bomb at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and Brown vs. the  Board of Education in Topeka, Kansas.  These also use a multitude of devices and methods to bring us into a sense of the past so we leave feeling we really understand what happened there.

Some like BitterSweet Cabin Village in Kentucky and The Pioneer Women Museum in Oklahoma confine themselves to a narrow range of history. The John Deere Museum in Illinois and the McCormick Farm in Virginia deal with a specific inventions that changed the nature of agriculture in America.

Making History Real for Children

Experiences with people and life from the past will broaden a child's ability to understand the world.  Classroom experiences are frequent in living history museums, but they are often brief being no more than an hour of two of what the classrooms were like in the past.

 One of the best we've seen was in Oklahoma where the children came for the day, dressed, as their teachers did, in turn of the century clothes, with a home-packed lunch.  Boys were seated on one side of the room and the girls on the other.  They spent the whole day in class learning the subject matter of the time with the teacher using the tools and methods of the time.

At other places we have met with re-enactors who stayed in role, Abraham Lincoln, Harry Truman, Andrew Johnson and many common people who could tell us about their time period.

 For these contacts the children need some preparation so they know who they are dealing with and can ask the appropriate questions.  It helps if these experiences are intergraded into their classroom studies.  Actually getting involved and doing something is better than watching someone do it, and watching someone do something is better than reading about it. 

We have visited one excellent  site where children lived for five or six days to get an immersion experience in what life was like for their ancestors, but we will probably talk about that in another book.

We have been very pleased about what we have learned by traveling to living history museums and historical sites.

At Conner Prairie we watched a re-enactor, make moccasins. As we admired the size and quality of a beaver skin he was working with, he explained the process the Native Americans used to prepare it.

At the Ark Encounter a manikin Noah tells the visitor about his work.