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
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.
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:
- Colonial Williamsburg ::: Virginia
- Mystic Seaport Museum of America and the Sea ::: Connecticut
- A.C. Gilbert’s Discovery Village ::: Oregon
- Fort William Henry Museum and Restoration ::: New York
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?