Living History Museums: Going Beyond Textbooks

Written by Kara Fleck, editor of Simple Kids.

Would it surprise you to learn that my family and I are time travelers? It is true!  Our mini-van recently became our personal time machine when we visited one of our favorite local living history museums, Conner Prairie.

Living history museums are a way to interact with history, up close and personal, and in some cases at the very spots where the original events occurred.

A visit to a living history museum moves education beyond the page of a textbook. They offer a chance to experience history with your five senses: you can see, hear, smell, taste, and touch the past.

Many living history museums provide an opportunity to interact with performers who portray the thoughts and feelings of their characters while demonstrating the daily chores, pastimes, and politics of the era.

If you’re planning a field trip to a living history museum, here are a few tips to help you get the most out of your visit:

Before You Go

Check the Website

This may seem like an obvious tip, but be sure to check the brochure or website for the hours, even if you have been there before. Many living history museums are located outdoors and therefore have seasonal hours. Some museums have had to cut back their hours of operation due to the current economy.

If it is your first visit to the living history museum, or if it has been a while since you’ve gone, check  for information on planning your first visit. This will give you suggestions for “must-see” attractions as well as any recent changes or improvements since your last visit.

Keep an Eye on the Forecast

As I mentioned, many living history museums are located in part, or entirely, outside. Be sure to check the forecast to find out how to dress for the weather and if you need to pack an umbrella or extra sunscreen.

Consider a Membership

It pays to compare the cost of admission with the cost of a membership. We discovered that a yearly membership to Conner Prairie for our family of five was only slightly more expensive than the price of a one-time admission. Our member benefits include a discount at the gift shop and free parking, too.

Some living history museums have universal memberships, meaning your pass covers admission to other participating museums as well. Our Conner Prairie membership also gives us access to the Smithsonian museums.

Do Your Homework

Spend some time with your child discussing and reading about the period in time or event you are going to be visiting. Ask your child to be on the lookout during your visit for specific things from your discussions. Encourage them to think about things that might be different from modern times and also to notice similarities with today.

Check the museum’s website for teacher resources. Some of them even have study guides that you can use before your visit to help enrich the educational experience.

Things to Bring Along

Tools for Documenting

Be sure to document your experience in some way – with a camera, video, or just a simple journal and pencil. Do this alongside your child and you can compare your notes and photographs together later.

Jot down observations, create sketches, photograph your experiences.

You might be surprised by the things and experiences which stand out to your child and make the biggest impression on them.

Your Sense of Adventure

Living history museums are very hands-on. Be willing to jump right in and have a first-person experience with history!

At Conner Prairie we had the opportunity to make candles, milk a cow, take a tour of the heirloom gardens, try our hand at weaving, help out in the pioneer kitchen, or even to take an 1859 hot air balloon voyage. It was wonderful to be able to actively engage. Instead of passively viewing exhibits, we became a part of the experience.

Be Prepared To

Suspend Disbelief

As you immerse yourself in culture and history of times gone by, you may have to suspend disbelief for a while. Yes, this is really just an actor dressed up as Abraham Lincoln, but get into the spirit of the performance.  Be willing to believe you are in the presence of America’s sixteenth president and let yourself be taken back in time.

Be a good audience member and go along with the act. It is sometimes easier for children to get in this mindset than adults, but if you play along you’ll all have a better time and get more from the experience.

Slow Down, Ask Questions

While you are visiting the museum, encourage your family to take their time. Don’t shuffle quickly from exhibit to exhibit, but linger over what interests your family.

Make sure that you encourage your child to ask questions and interact with the actors, too.

Dress Up … Just a Little Bit

Dressing up for your visit to a living history museum doesn’t have to mean head to toe pioneer or colonial garb for the whole family. Practically speaking, a simple mob cap or bonnet goes a long way toward allowing your child to engage in the experience and add another layer to the illusion of stepping back in time.

Keeping it simple means that you can simply tuck the bonnet or cap into your bag, or even your back pocket, if your child grows tired of wearing it.

Living History

We had such a good time at Conner Prairie that our family is making a list of other living history museums we’d like to visit, including:

Where will your family’s time machine take you?

Does your family have a favorite living history museum that we should add to our “must see” list?

About Kara

Kara is mother of four, a caregiver, and a striped sock knitter. Uncomplicated and unconventional, you can find her sharing simple living tips at K. Elizabeth Fleck.


  1. absolutely love this post! when i was in grad school, i visited versailles for the first time and remember thinking, wow, if kids got to see where the treaty of versailles was signed, it would be so much more interesting.

    colonial williamsburg is wonderful and i find that i *want* to pretend it’s real to be part of the action. a few others that come to mind (some of these have special days where people dress up making it a “living” museum where as other days they’re just normal museums):

    – Mt. Vernon – they have several times a year that people can take part in things like grinding corn into cornmeal, etc. while employees are dressed in period garb
    – Monticello/Montpelier/Ash Lawn-Highland are all quite close together and Michey’s Tavern is nearby for meals served on pewterware

    this is stretching the concept a bit but in Newport, RI, one of the mansions (the Astors’ Beechwood) has a mystery theatre where the actors/actresses are dressed in period clothing, they do traditional ballroom dancing and even teach you a bit of the dances before you traipse off exploring the house looking for clues.

    okay, i’m writing a novel so i’ll stop but really do love, love, love this!

  2. Another great option–the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints runs very similar pioneer-era restored homes and towns in Kirtland, OH; Palmyra, NY; and Nauvoo, IL. We’ve visited all three sites within the last four months and my kids (5, 3, 1) were in heaven–in Nauvoo, for instance, they watched a horseshoe being made (which was then given to them as a souvenir), wove their own rope, learned about and ate pioneer bread and cookies, watched weaving/candle-dipping, etc. SO neat! And–totally free. No admission fee required!!!
    .-= Rachael’s last blog: vacation destination three: Palmyra, NY (Chimney Bluffs edition) =-.

  3. Oooh, yes! There is something about immersing yourself in history in these types of places. It really brings the idea of history alive in surprising ways. Two more great U.S. living museums that we’ve enjoyed are:

    – Plimouth Plantation in Massachusetts
    – St. Mary’s City in Maryland

    When my eldest girl was younger, we went to Colonial Williamsburg with her doll Felicity (who lived in Williamsburg herself). It was a fantastic way to tie in all the things she’d learned about Colonial Williamsburg from the Felicity books with the actual place and its history.
    .-= Laura’s last blog: Number Word Matching Game =-.

  4. How do you find these museums? Do I just google Living History Museum? We live in Colorado, and while I think there is and old Fort somewhere, I can’t think of anything else. I love this idea and would like to figure out how to find places to go!
    .-= Deb’s last blog: And Now, A Quiz =-.

  5. I LOVED Conner Prairie as a young girl. I think I’ll like it even more as an adult. I’m curious how your two younger kids enjoyed the day (since they are the same ages as mine). Were they fairly well engaged or did they get antsy?

    Wonderful post! You always give ideas that get my wheels turning….time to do some research!

    • Every kid is different, of course, but it was perfect for Max (4) – he seemed to really like the animals and the people dressed up and the slightly different way they spoke to us. The buildings/homes weren’t as interesting to him, but there was definitely enough to keep him engaged and he wants to go back 🙂

      Lucy (2) was not as impressed. She preferred to be carried much of the time and was more content to watch then to join in. (which is perfectly fine for a two year old … she’ll have more fun with things like that in a few years, I think)

      Jillian, our eight year old, was in HEAVEN and had a blast! Like American Girl and Liberty’s Kids (not exactly the same era) come to life for her 🙂
      .-= Kara Fleck’s last blog: From Farm to Table: A Summertime Fieldtrip (Plus a Recipe for Georgia Peach Sorbet) =-.

  6. Shaker Village in NH:

    Old Sturbridge Village in MA:

  7. Kara (also the name of my daughter 🙂 We are less than an hour from AC Gilbert, in Oregon. If you are out this way, do let us know! We really enjoyed our time there, over a year ago…we are ready to go back! Thanks for the post 🙂 ~Connie & Kara (age 7)

  8. We live close to Mystic Seaport in CT and have celebrated the 4th of July there in the past. The ships they have that you can tour are incredible!

    Thanks for the great post, Kara!
    .-= Jamie ~ Simple Homeschool’s last blog: Living History Museums: Going Beyond Textbooks =-.

  9. We have a great Living History Museum by us called Green Field Village it’s attached to the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. I haven’t taken my kids to the Village yet, but that is on our list of things to do this summer. I remember going as a kid and spending the night with our class. It’s such a great experience.
    .-= Rana’s last blog: I Want To Know… =-.

  10. Kara,
    I love the way you think!

    We have a place called Missouri Town here that sounds much like the place you describe. It shows life according to 1855. I went with my 6th grade class 20 years ago and we made bonnets to wear.

    This Christmas I went with my daughter, and we drank cider and saw all the beautiful and meaningful advent decorations of 1855. In the fall they also have fun event of selling crafts etc. There a so many wonderful places to learn besides “school.”
    .-= Janna @ The Adventure of Motherhood’s last blog: Three Classic Toys That You Already Have: A Ball, A Book and A Blanket =-.

  11. I found my post about MO town that I wrote this Christmas and you can see the pictures. I love the women in their costumes.
    .-= Janna @ The Adventure of Motherhood’s last blog: Three Classic Toys That You Already Have: A Ball, A Book and A Blanket =-.

  12. We live 20 minutes from Valley Forge and other revolutionary war sites. Many of them have reenactments and living history days. My children have gotten so into it they all have period clothing. It’s so much fun and they really know a lot about that time in history. Great post!
    .-= Bekki’s last blog: Ice Cream for dinner =-.

  13. We had a wonderful time at the Mayflower and Plimoth Plantation, coincidentally right around the time we were learning about the Pilgrims. It’s very well done and includes the Wampanoag perspective as well.

    I remember as a child loving to visit Old Sturbridge Village, also in MA.

    Living history is lots of fun!
    .-= Hannah’s last blog: Moving Forward. I Think. =-.

  14. My parents took me to as many living history museums as we could find while traveling. My mom is a big history buff and she instilled that love in me. Here are a couple off the top of my head. The Historic Arkansas Museum in Little Rock ( is fantastic. Also, Murphy’s Landing in the Twin Cities area ( And, for Deb in Colorado… try the Manitou Cliff Dwellings in Colorado Springs ( I don’t know if it’s necessarily classified as a living history museum as they don’t typically have performers, but you can explore the cliff dwellings as much as you like and immerse yourself in what it would be like to live in one.

    One tip I do have is that if the trip to a living history museum sparks an interest in your child check the gift shop for books that will extend the experience. Most of the gift shops have books, both fiction and non-fiction, about the location/time period explored in the museum.
    .-= Terri’s last blog: Wednesday Escape… =-.

  15. My best friend from high school works at a living history farm in Des Moines, and it’s fantastic. They don’t perform, and it’s self-led.

  16. I took 1 st home loans when I was not very old and it supported my family very much. Nevertheless, I require the commercial loan again.

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