Museum Visits–Making Them Sticky

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I’ve been spending a lot of time in museums lately.  A few weeks ago, I was privileged to visit the Smithsonian’s Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. The praise for this newest addition to the Smithsonian has been sky high, and it isn’t hyperbole to say the museum is spectacular.  By now, people know when they visit that their tour will start on the underground floors and progress in a spiral through 500 years of history—starting with the slave trade, traveling through all of American history, and ending on the top floors with a celebration of African-American accomplishments and triumph.  As a friend of mine who was with me that day said, “You are sick to your stomach, then tearful, and then you feel like dancing.”

The Museum is huge, vast in its scope, deep in its detail. I started by taking notes of things I didn’t know, not realizing I could take pictures on my phone (of most exhibits). But by the time I reached Jefferson, I couldn’t take notes anymore. There was simply too much information. I took a few pictures, but even that mode of recording information was inadequate to the task. I kept going, through the Civil War, through Reconstruction, through early 20th century. And then I reached the Civil Rights movement–the time period I remember, know something about personally.  And still, the explosion of information overwhelmed me. There was so much I didn’t know.

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Aware that I wouldn’t be back for a long time, I wanted to take everything in, skip nothing, but museum fatigue set in. I’d already spent five hours and only had a little time left. I’d been admonished not to miss the top floors, so in my remaining hour, that’s where I headed. Thank goodness, for even though I skimmed the exhibits there, I wouldn’t have wanted to miss the jubilation at the top.

When teachers take their students to museums, they usually don’t have six hours–even if the field trip is to Washington D.C. and they’re staying several days.  Maybe brevity is a good thing because museum fatigue (a real phenomenon–not just a term I made up) would set in well before the six hours I stayed.

Coming away from a museum like this one with an overall impression (as in my friend’s summation about revulsion, empathy, and joy) is important in itself, of course. Context matters. But to make the memory “sticky,” it’s important to personalize the experience in some way.  If you’ve ever been to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in D.C., you remember how visitors receive an identity card when they enter. At the end of their visit, they find out what happened to the person they’ve become as they’ve experienced the Holocaust.

This isn’t possible in the African-American History Museum–slave records are incomplete and depersonalized and the time span (500 years) is too long for this same strategy–but objects,  events, and even concepts can become personal.  Here are some ways that can be done–for this museum or any other.

  1. If you’re doing a study of African-American history in your classroom ahead of time, have each student choose a specific event, a particular individual, or an important topic to “specialize” in. Then, at the Museum, the student’s mission will be to find the exhibit where that event or that individual or that topic is depicted. The task will be to pause for a significant amount of time in front of it (or interact with it) and take notes, even pictures (if pictures are allowed).Upon returning to the classroom, students report out–orally or in writing–about “their” exhibit. What new information was learned? What displays or pictures or graphics brought the information to life? Was it covered more deeply–or less so–than the student had covered it? How did it relate to exhibits around it? Were there other events or people that were similar?                                                                                                                                      bombing-of-birmingham-church
  2. If you’re not studying African-American history ahead of time, go to the Museum website (https://nmaahc.si.edu/) before you visit the Museum itself.  Have students click on Museum Collections and choose an area of interest.  Objects in the collection are cataloged by topic, date, place, name and object type. By expanding the information on any one of the thousands of items in the collection, students can see if that item is on display and the location of the object in the Museum. To make this more than a scavenger hunt, have the student prepare an oral or written report on exactly what the item was, how it was used, to whom it belonged and how it was situated in the exhibit. In other words, ask them to explain the context of the item.

One of the most successful museum visits I ever made with students was to an exhibit in 2001 to the Indianapolis Museum to see “Gifts to the Czars,” a collection of dazzling items that had been brought to the Russian czars by ambassadors from around the world from 1500 to 1700. The items were treasures from the Armory Museum in Moscow. I brought students to this museum to prepare them for reading Animal Farm–to contrast the opulence and luxury of palace life with the squalor and deprivation peasants faced in pre-Revolutionary Russia. No amount of my say-so was as effective in conveying the richness of the Russian Empire as the bejeweled gold and silver pieces, the inlaid and encrusted objects that were taken as mere gifts to the czars.  

3. At the Museum, I asked students to find one object in the exhibit that intrigued them, pause in front of it for at least 5 minutes, and with words and sketches, capture the detail they saw.  In the collection: sabers and swords, shields, textiles, horse trappings, an empirical eagle with a tray for holding the czar’s crown, a Baroque basin, serving dishes and wall decorations. Something of interest for everyone.  The temptation today would be to take a cell phone picture, but it is the 5 minutes of close visual inspection that made the assignment work. Five minutes is an awfully long time for a 9th grader, but the longer they looked, the more they saw. The follow-up to this assignment was a creative writing piece, based on the known facts, and a map showing the route the ambassador would have taken from his home–say, Istanbul or Stockholm–to Moscow at that time. 

A similar activity could be done in any museum, but the temptation to take a cell phone shot and move on would have to be overcome. As I recall, I had to approach the 5-minute rule as a challenge to my students. Could they do it: Hold still for 5 minutes? (Click here for the original assignment.)

A side note: When a few of those same students went to Russia with me a year or so later, we visited the Armory Museum.  Some of the items they’d identified were back on display there. Students who found “their” object were genuinely excited!

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In any event, the point is this: To heighten the impact of a museum visit, find a way for the students to identify with the exhibit you are taking them to see.  Years later–and even on the spot–the time spent in any museum can be just a blur, but if the student–or the teacher–heads into it with a personalizing assignment in mind, that at least will stick–long after the overall impression has faded.

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