By Lara Krupicka
My husband, children and I cluster around a wigmaker watching her pull strands of hair through the mesh of a wig base. She points at the head-shaped wooden stand holding a finished wig. “This is a wig block,” she explains. “That’s where we get the term ‘blockhead’.” She goes on to explain the economics of Colonial wig making, noting how one’s wig could say much about one’s social status.
Our family steps out of the tiny shop, enthralled by what we learned – about history, language, and economics. And all this at only one building in the acres of grounds comprising Colonial Williamsburg.
A visit to any one of the approximately 200 living history museums in the United States gives families a chance to learn much more than history. These museums offer an immersive experience that allows visitors to get a taste of what it would have been like to live during the time period depicted. But they also bring a better understanding of our world today by connecting multiple disciplines (science, math, language, and politics) from past to present.
Here are some of the subjects your family might learn about during a visit to your local living history museum:
Guests are often surprised to learn the origins of common phrases while visiting places like Naper Settlement, a 19th century living history museum in Naperville, Illinois. In the Post Office an interpreter explains how the early mail system worked. She points out how mail was paid for by the person on the receiving end. To save the recipient money, the sender would write down a page, then turn the page upside down and continue writing between the previous lines of text – thus begetting the term, “reading between the lines.”
In the settlement’s print shop visitors are shown how lines of type were laid out for printing advertising leaflets and newspapers. The interpreter points to two large wooden cases containing sets of letters stacked open one above the other. “The upper case holds capital letters,” she explains. “While the lower case holds…” Visitors are quick to guess the origins of “upper case” and “lower case” from her explanation.
Science & Math
At Conner Prairie Interactive History Park in Fishers, Indiana, staff carefully created exhibits relating to disciplines such as science and engineering. “One way we have done this,” says Vice President of Guest Experiences, Dan Freas, “is by creating a Science Lab in our Welcome Center where children and caregivers can explore scientific concepts related to the living history experiences they encounter on the grounds.”
Freas notes children can watch a spinning wheel being used by a museum interpreter and then learn how one works by building their own model out of Legos at the Science Lab.
And at Conner Prairie’s 1859 Balloon Voyage exhibit guests learn about airstreams and the creation of gas before riding beneath a tethered helium-filled balloon.
At Naper Settlement visitors can learn about chemical reactions and physics. “In the Log House we discuss soap making and the chemical reactions that are taking place to both create the lye required for the soap and the saponification between the lye and the animal fat that results in soap,” says Jo Ruggiero, museum educator. In another location interpreters explain the physics involved in turning cream into butter.
Science emerges at Colonial Williamsburg as well. “Guests can learn about the 18th-century uses of various herbs and see how some of these uses have not changed,” explains Erin Curtis from the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.
And at the apothecary children are fascinated to hear about the healing properties of chocolate. My daughter vows to try this the next time she has a headache.
Economics, Politics, and Social Studies
Colonial Williamsburg provides a thorough education in the political systems of England and the Colonies. Curtis explains, “through Revolutionary City, Colonial Williamsburg’s award-winning street theater performances, guests can learn about economics and politics, as they listen to interpreters discuss the imposition of the Stamp Tax through the Stamp Act.”
The immersive nature of living history museums encourages families to become part of the action, having to decide which side they’ll take in the political debate. Instead of dry explanation, children experience the forces behind politics of that time and in turn, our current day.
Diane Schwarz, Director of Historic Area Operations for Colonial Williamsburg notes the connections between then and now. “Our guests come here expecting to find a different time and place. And there are many, many differences in sights, sounds and smells. But what fascinates them the most is how many similarities they find and how many familiar objects, facts and ideas prevalent in their own lives, are right here in this capital city.”
Ruggiero of Naper Settlement agrees. “I like the children to understand that every time period we interpret was just not the simple ‘good old days’ when life was less complicated. Every one of those eras considered themselves ‘modern’ in the same sense that we do.”
When considering where your family will travel and what you’ll do to provide learning experiences for your children this summer, look for a opportunity to visit a living history museum. You’ll learn about so much more than history you’ll be ready to “hit the hay” by the end of the day (which of course you’ll have learned originates from a time when mattresses were stuffed with straw or hay).
Lara Krupicka is mom to one history buff, a bibliophile, and a math-lover who all enjoy visiting living history museums.
For more information about these museums or to find a living history museum near you, check out these websites: