Teaching History With Museums

“When you see it, you’ll become a believer. It’s almost impossible not to feel that way.” Those are the words of Meaghan Davis, a social studies teacher at Conard High School in West Hartford and disciple of UConn Professor Dr. Alan Marcus’ approach to teaching history.

Marcus, associate professor of curriculum and instruction in the Neag School of Education, has written a book called Teaching History with Museums: Strategies for K-12 Social Studies. He and co-author Walter Woodward, Connecticut state historian and associate professor of history at UConn, presented a workshop on the book at one of the museums featured in it: The Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford.

The book outlines strategies for making history come alive through visits to museums and interaction with primary sources and artifacts. It shows teachers how to plan effective educational experiences at the following kinds of museums:

  • Artifact and display museums
  • State history museums
  • Historic forts
  • Historic house museums
  • Living history museums
  • Memorials and monuments

Each category of museum gets its own chapter, complete with information on the relevance and focus of that type of museum, opportunities for learning specific skills outlined in the Common Core State Standards, case histories of actual class field trips, and resources. The book shares examples of previsit, during-visit, and postvisit activities and offers advice for how to develop your own activities. The information can be applied to any museum that fits into the category covered in that chapter. Museums offer experiences kids can’t get in books or in the classroom.

“Museums can do things we can’t do in the classroom. They can do things books alone can’t do,” Woodward told the teachers gathered at the Twain Museum.

He pointed out that museums offer authentic pedagogy, connect the present with the past, and help students develop historical empathy—the ability to recognize that people who lived in another time thought about and felt differently about issues than we do today.

Studies have shown that Americans trust museums as authoritative sources of knowledge. But it’s important, Woodward cautioned, for students to understand that museums also interpret history. They have their own agendas and make subjective decisions about what to include in their exhibits—and what to leave out. Those decisions are influenced by the times in which we live.

The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Aside from providing an overview of the benefits of teaching history with museums, the Twain House workshop took participants through case studies from actual field trips to two types of museums. The first was a trip to an artifact and display museum—The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Previsit activities included exploring personal stories and creating parallel timelines for World War II and the Holocaust. Students could choose only six events for each timeline. Their teacher compared this to the way museums must choose which artifacts and events to include in their exhibits.

During the visit, small groups of students were given a particular perspective and focus on (1) perpetrators and liberators, (2) survivors and rescuers, (3) bystanders and resisters, and (4) collaborators and victims. Postvisit activities included discussing what students learned about these perspectives and having survivors come in and speak to the class.

9/11 memorials The second case study involved visits to 9/11 memorials. According to Marcus, monuments and memorials offer many benefits for teachers, including the fact that they are widely available and free. Monuments reflect the time and place in which they were built, as well as the viewpoint of the organization that erected them. Many have generated controversy, which can be educational for students to investigate.

As part of his presentation, Marcus divided workshop participants into groups and had them perform the same postvisit activity the students in the 9/11 case study did. They were told that they had been selected to participate in a National Park Service competition to create a monument/memorial to commemorate the events of 9/11. Each group had to choose a location, write the text, and describe the design aesthetics for its monument while representing one of the following perspectives:

  • Women
  • First responders
  • Officials from the Saudi Arabian embassy in New York
  • Wall Street bankers
  • U.S. government officials

The process was as engaging for the workshop participants as it was for the students. One teacher’s commitment to teaching with museums Meaghan Davis studied under Marcus at UConn. In a class taught by him, Davis traveled to Europe and studied at various historic sites. “That experience literally changed my life,” she said. As part of her studies at UConn, she also interned at The Mark Twain House and Museum, where she served as a guide and helped develop curriculum and outreach activities. There she witnessed firsthand how powerfully students can respond to museum exhibits and is now committed to using museums in her own teaching.

“To see how powerful it can be has changed my whole educational philosophy,” she said. “Sometimes when you give the kids an opportunity, it’s amazing how they can impress you.”

Davis plans to take her students to the 9/11 Memorial in New York City.

Reprinted with permission. CEA Advisor, April 2013