Originally built around 1738, Raynham Hall was home to the Townsend family – including “Culper Jr.” – George Washington’s spy. The house is furnished to both the Colonial and Victorian eras, and has the notoriety as one of the most haunted buildings on Long Island. Raynham Hall Museum, like many historic sites, connects well with 4th grade local history curriculum. For a typical fourth grade tour, if the weather cooperates, the students start outside to hear about the differences between the architecture of the Colonial and Victorian eras evident in the house. Then, the kids are given a tour of the house, get to handle Colonial objects from a teaching collection, and see a demonstration of invisible ink.
The tour incorporates different types of activities, but what do the fourth graders really think about it? To prepare for the workshop we decided to ask some students who had recently visited. And even crazier, we wanted to ask them to be museum anarchists too.
The beauty of this last question was that it gave the kids a chance to enhance what they thought was exciting, and problem solve what was boring. In some ways, it was pretty simple. Almost everything they said they learned about Raynham Hall was interesting to them, but the way they were being taught is what got bad reviews. These fourth graders don’t want “speeches.” They don’t want to sit. They don’t like “velvet ropes.” They want to be active, to explore, and to learn by doing.
Impossible? Dangerous? Are you saying we should let a bunch of 10-year olds loose in our museum? We aren’t suggesting quite that level of anarchy! But from the pens of those fourth graders here are three universal ways to keep them excited about your museum, and want to come back.
TAKE DOWN THE BARRIERS
Literally and figuratively. These fourth graders want to see and experience the museum. They really do understand they can’t touch the art or artifacts. But they want more access: “I would take off the ropes and go in the rooms but just not touch anything.” As another child said: “If I was giving a tour I would let them have more exploring time and more cool adventures.” These kids are curious. They are interested. But the barriers – of the ropes, of the sitting and listening that museums often put them through – frustrates them. They are kids, who have been sitting at desks all day. They want to be active and explore: “I would make us sit less and more moving around.”
But, how can you do this and protect your collections? The fourth graders have many suggestions for you. “I would let people walk around and tell them what they found.” And, “I would let them look around they would ask them questions and have less talking.” Related to this desire to be in the rooms, these students were really engaged when they could handle teaching objects. Many of them commented on the Colonial “toaster”: “I would make the toaster center of attention and explain it the way the lady did,” said one child. Another repeated “I would make the toaster center of attention.” Why did the toaster resonate? They were able to touch it, and there was a compelling story related to it. They want that same experience with the rooms. Consider it – if your museum is a historic site, can you remove the barriers to any room? Let them enter more of the space? Make a room all hands-on?
ENGAGE THEM WITH STORIES
These students seemed to love stories. Now, this group did read a work of fiction about the site before visiting, but the idea of stories comes through many different comments. Some of the students wanted to act out the story of the site: “I would make them choose a Townsend and they would do a scene from “Treason Stops at Oyster Bay” pretending to be that person.” How could this be applicable somewhere where there aren’t novels about the museum? Perhaps you can ask the students to come prepared with questions they would ask a person who used to live at your historic site, and they can be answered by a costumed interpreter or a guide. That way the information is an interaction, not a passive lecture. Or ask them to get in small groups and have them create a “tableaux vivant” to recreate an image they like in the gallery. (They might know it as the “mannequin challenge.”) Then get them to talk about why they chose that image – and share with them the stories behind it.
If they can’t go in the rooms, can a teaching collection of objects relate to multiple rooms? They could be sent on a scavenger hunt to find the “mystery objects” in the rooms, and come back with ideas about what they are and how they were used. Then students could handle these teaching objects and hear their stories.
Or they can create their own. At Raynham Hall there were a surprising number of requests to “Reenact the American Revolution with nerf guns.” And they wanted the staff involved too: “The tour guide shoot the guns. Nerf gun war to play and make it as we were in the Colonial war.”
Seriously. There were repeated requests for this. And they understand Nerf guns were not used in the American Revolution: “Nerf gun fight – revolutionary war imitation.” Why do some of the students want to have a Nerf gun battle at a museum? They want to move. They want to have fun. They want to understand history through experiences. And, the students just wanted to understand the American Revolution in terms they understand: Nerf guns. They want to be part of the story, so they can understand the story within their own context.
Finally …. BE FUNNY and BE BRIEF
Museums don’t have to be serious. Tell your story with brevity and humor. These fourth graders wished their guides would “Use more puns.” If they were leading the tours they “…would incorporate funny jokes into the tour so they would laugh and enjoy their stay there….” Let them look, get them involved, tell them stories, share a joke or two – and help make more life-long museum visitors.