The Past & the Future: Museums & Historical Societies

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For tourists in London, it’s hard to miss the city’s deep connection to history: it’s everywhere you look, indoors and out. But the Churchill War Rooms museum brings the city’s wartime history to life with a unique blend of the past and the future. The museum is a cavernous collection of preserved bunkers, allowing visitors to experience the same cold, cramped conditions military personnel did. Standing in the space, you can truly feel the looming threat of an attack overhead. And yet the War Rooms also features a glimpse into the future of museum design and education: a giant interactive timeline that uses digital technology to animate correspondences across Churchill’s life.

Victory sees museums and historical societies all over the world as untapped resources for classroom instruction, and even cutting-edge Ed Tech. These resources can help bring history into the future and make it relevant to new generations of students. And you don’t need to take students to Europe to achieve this. Just see what local institutions offer in your own area.

Historical societies provide a wealth of fascinating resources online. Primary sources supply illuminating, first-person perspectives that make the past feel alive. One great example here in New England are John Adams’ famous letters, made available by the Massachusetts Historical Society. The letters offer a glimpse into the mind of a Founding Father in a turbulent time, and even boast great literary value. One letter to Abigail Adams on New Year’s Day 1797, for example, shows Adams’ optimism working with his rival-turned-Vice-President Thomas Jefferson: “Jefferson and I should go on affectionately together and all would be well.” Injecting documents like these into history lessons gives a more intimate cast to what may feel like remote, static events. And as an added bonus, it also allows students to analyze texts and practice important research and literacy skills.

Physical artifacts and period images can bring even more immediacy to the past. It’s important to teach students how to “read” more than just texts, and a close study of an object or an image can do just that. And if you can’t visit museums to practice “Object-Based Learning” in person, online resources offer a different type of interactivity. Historic New England, for example, has high-resolution images of a variety of artifacts — and that’s in addition to the historic properties they manage throughout the area. This detailed illustration of the Boston Massacre caught our eye as an evocative visual aid relevant to our new digital lesson, but Historic New England’s archives can provide resources for any number of lesson topics.

Alone or used in conjunction with Ed Tech tools, historical resources such as these deepen and enrich discussion of the past while strengthening critical and analytical skills.

The model of combining bringing the past into the future is beginning to catch on in museum design as well. As The New York Times and The Week report, top institutions are experimenting with a number of new digital experiences that offer rich engagement to students. Imagine exploring the Taj Mahal with a VR headset, or using a smartphone to overlay a location’s past as you occupy it in the present.

Educators and publishers should also think pursue experiences outside the classroom. Consider this call to action from the Center for the Future of Museums:

“Students know that schools are only one node in their broader network of learning, and our education structures should reflect this reality. Working together, schools and museums can design learning experiences that are engineered from the student perspective and create a better future for education.”

The possibilities are truly exciting. Within these new venues, Ed Tech products can take on more ambitious shapes and sizes, tackle more complex ideas. Victory hopes to explore these possibilities further, and we see our digital lesson on the Boston Massacre and our Visual Literacy Tool as models for the type of experiences that enrich learning.

So explore what historical societies and museums have to offer, whether onsite or online, and bring the past into the future for your students.

Citations:

Adams, John. “Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, 1 January 1797.” Adams Family Papers. https://www.masshist.org/digitaladams/archive/doc?id=L17970101ja&bc=%2Fdigitaladams%2Farchive%2Fbrowse%2Fletters_1796_1801.php. Accessed 30 Nov. 2016.

“Calendar for New England Mutual Life Insurance Co., Post Office Square, Boston, Mass., 1901.” Historic New England. http://www.historicnewengland.org/collections-archives-exhibitions/collections-access/collection-object/capobject?gusn=GUSN-273916. Accessed 30 Nov. 2016.

Cannell, Michael. “Museums Turn to Technology to Boost Attendance by Millennials.” New York Times: Mar. 17, 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/19/arts/artsspecial/museums-turn-to-technology-to-boost-attendance-by-millennials.html?_r=0. Accessed 30 Nov. 2016.

Hullinger, Jessica. “The high-tech museums of the future.” The Week: Nov. 3, 2015. http://theweek.com/articles/586287/hightech-museums-future. Accessed 30 Nov. 2016.

Mann, Casson. “The Lifeline Table, Churchill War Rooms.” https://vimeo.com/82281541. Accessed 30 Nov. 2016.

Robbins, Michael. “Foreword.” Building the Future of Education: Museums and the Learning Ecosystem. Center for the Future of Museums: 2014. pp. 5–8. http://www.aam-us.org/docs/default-source/center-for-the-future-of-museums/building-the-future-of-education-museums-and-the-learning-ecosystem.pdf?sfvrsn=2. Accessed 30 Nov. 2016.

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