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News & Press: Exhibition Reviews

History Museums Can Be Fun!

Monday, March 24, 2014   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Karen Stark
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There is an unfortunate perception of small history museums as being quiet, dusty places full of old stuff - rather boring, especially for children. Museums with the best attendance, repeat visitors and positive attention these days tend to be Science and Children’s Museums - places where families go to do fun things together. Is it possible incorporate approaches from these kinds of museums into history museums without compromising their mission?

I found a small history museum that I felt was doing this very successfully. First, I must admit that my personal passion for museums somehow has not been transmitted to my children. But I am working on the next generation and am having more success there. While visiting my daughter and her family in Illinois last summer, I took the opportunity to take my grandchildren - 4 year old girl and 3 year old boy - to the Museum of the Grand Prairie while their mother got her hair done.  This small history museum is in Mahomet, Illinois - a place I would guess you have not heard of. It is a small rural town not far from Champaign, but far enough off the beaten track. Yet, they have a wonderful museum that I almost had to drag these preschoolers out of (actually bribed with candy from the gift shop). They loved it! I thought they had as much fun there as they did at the renowned Indianapolis Children’s Museum which we also visited.

This museum has a large Discovery Room dedicated to children. It had tables and chairs for structured activities for groups. There were dress-up clothes and play food for use in the very realistic hearth. There was a Native American Wigwam to explore as well as a ‘river boat’.

Activities for children were not limited to that one area, however. Throughout the museum almost every exhibit had accompanying take-home information sheets with pictures to color, questions to answer or simple activities and information to reinforce the exhibit. Many exhibits had interactive elements. My grandchildren’s favorite was the blacksmith forge where they could use real tools to learn the trade. Pumping the bellows turned on a red light and fan to make fire. Every museum in Illinois has a Lincoln exhibit (it must be a requirement) and this one also had a great exhibit with numerous artifacts and lots of information. Since this area was part of the ‘circuit’ that Lincoln rode as a traveling judge, this was experienced through a carriage ride with Lincoln with a scenic video and narration.

This museum is not unique in using interactive exhibits. We have some small museums in Utah doing similar things. I was fortunate to be able to work at the Brigham City Museum where they have successfully incorporated hands-on activities into their history exhibits without great expense or staff time.

Creating these kinds of experiences requires more creativity than money or resources and can be done in even the smallest museums. Incorporate into the exhibit planning process some discussion and exploration of potential interactive elements which could be used to enhance the stories. Before adding interactives to existing exhibits, I might suggest observing what kinds of things children of all ages (adults still like to play with things, too!) naturally want to handle or explore. Then look for items - actual antiques that could be purchased or insignificant objects in your collection which could be re-designated for hands-on educational use. Or find replica items or someone who can construct objects or sets. All of these objects need to be repairable and/or replaceable with signage or some obvious way to let visitors know they are OK to handle. While exploring the telegraph at the Grand Prairie Museum, my grandson managed to dislodge the spring from the transmitter. When I told the staff person, she replied “That’s why they are hands-on, that happens. Thanks for letting me know so we can fix it.”

Hands-on items should not be added simply for the sake of having hands-on or to create a play area for parents to drop off their children so they can enjoy the museum. The idea is to incorporate activities which enhance the exhibits - activities that individuals, groups, or families can do which help them step into the past to gain a greater understanding of the stories being told. Some activities can best be done together as families with discussion and sharing. Activities that keep children occupied also allow accompanying adults time to study and appreciate the visits. I was able to read many interesting exhibit labels while my grandchildren played blacksmith and still was able to keep an eye on them.

A great benefit of interactive elements is the potential for new experiences every time which encourage visitors to return again and again. Small children love to play with favorites over and over again, but even with the same objects the experience is not the same every time. Understanding of concepts, ideas, experiences and stories deepens through repeated contact as children grow. Group interaction also creates new experiences with repeated exposure to the same activities. Interactives can be an easy, inexpensive way to make visits to your small history museum fresh, new and fun.


Karen Stark works with the Utah Humanities Council as the Museum on Main Street Program Assistant. Karen is a member of the UMA Board and is a passionate advocate for small museums incorporating engaging and professional museum practices.

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