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Museums are marvelous places to learn about our culture—history, music, art, science, and current events. Many families are making plans for summer trips that will include visits to local museums.
I went recently on a field trip to Washington, D.C., where we visited the Ford Theater and the National Museum of American History. I was assisting another teacher on the trip, so my students were there to learn about a subject other than mine. The course teacher provided students with a list of must-sees while in the American History Museum. I noticed that the list was more like a scavenger hunt than a learning experience. Students were trying to see who could find everything on the list first rather than stopping to learn about the exhibit. This made me wonder how to make museum visits better learning experiences.
If you are planning a visit to a museum with your child, consider limiting the amount of the museum you expect him to really study and learn. For example, instead of asking him to visit a whole floor of the museum, you could ask him to focus on a very small area—to become an expert on a given topic. A little research ahead of time can help you figure out something he is interested in and determine where to focus once he gets there. For example, if he has a particular interest in the Civil War, he could go straight to those exhibits. One really interesting exhibit at the American History Museum is the draft wheel that was used during the Civil War. You could read the exhibit together with your child, discuss what it means, and then formulate three or four questions to investigate later. Did all the states use the draft wheel? How many people were drafted this way? What percentage of the Confederate soldiers were drafted into service? What about the Union soldiers? Did they also have a draft?
If your child is not interested in this particular exhibit, allow him to pick another one. The point is to spend enough time at two or three exhibits to make the visit worthwhile. There is nothing wrong with a quick trip through the whole floor, because you never know when something will really spark interest. However, going too quickly through too much material can result in very little learning.
Splitting your time between museums, outdoor memorials, theaters, and other learning activities is also a way to ensure your children make the most from educational opportunities. I felt like I was reliving the assassination of President Lincoln through the eyes of Harry Ford and Harry Hawk as we saw the film One Destiny at Ford’s Theater. After the play, we walked through the room where Lincoln died (in the Petersen House) and saw the room where Mary Todd Lincoln waited to find out how her husband was doing. The time we spent watching the play and visiting the house where he died made the museum inside the Ford Theater even more meaningful.
I have one final thought about museum visits with your children: Don’t overlook small, lesser-known museums. One of my favorite museum experiences is the Wright Brothers National Museum in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Another is the Lora Robins Gallery of Design from Nature at the University of Richmond. These two are very small museums with a big impact on their visitors.
It is time to start thinking about summer vacation. With some advanced research, museum visits can become an important educational experience for your family. If you cannot go in person, consider taking some virtual tours like this one through Ford’s Theater.