Hands-On Learning at Children’s Museums

Hands-on, please touch. Busy brains, curious minds. Sandbox, playhouse, stepping stones. These words – along with the often-used word discovery – are some of the terms found in the names of children’s museums listed on the website of the Association of Children’s Museums (ACM).

Behind the fun and the play, children’s museums are actually engaging in a serious endeavor – educating the youngest generation. As Jean Piaget put it, “play is the work of childhood.”

I remember visiting the Capital Children’s Museum, at the time located near Union Station in Washington, DC. As a kid, my favorite parts were the caves and the giant bubbles. Especially the caves.

The Capital Children’s Museum later rebranded itself as the National Children’s Museum and opened its Launch Zone at National Harbor in Maryland. Unfortunately, I never made it to the Launch Zone during its run from 2009 through 2012. (Today, the website hints at a future DC location for the museum.) I have briefly visited National Harbor, which currently has other offerings that may appeal to children, including rides like a carousel and the Capital Wheel, and the Awakening sculpture-cum-climbing structure.

The hand of the Awakening is trying to lift the National Harbor Christmas tree off the ground.

The hand of the Awakening is trying to lift the National Harbor Christmas tree off the ground (2011)

One children’s museum I did visit as an adult was the Hands-On Museum in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Among the interactive installations, children could build an arch, see themselves on screen in the MediaWorks gallery, and learn about that beloved subject among youngsters: toilets.

Toilet exhibit at the Hands-On Museum in Ann Arbor, Michigan (2005)

Toilet exhibit at the Hands-On Museum in Ann Arbor, Michigan (2005)

ACM’s website points out, “Many children’s museums are located in major travel and tourism destinations,” and emphasizes that a trip to a museum designed especially for children can be an important and memorable part of a vacation. For families with little ones, visiting a children’s museum should perhaps be right on that checklist along with the destination’s art museums, historic buildings, and national parks.

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John Canoe Jubilee

I first visited the Anacostia Community Museum in the summer of 2009, when this off-the-Mall Smithsonian put on the Jubilee: African American Celebration exhibit. As someone who loves holidays, I naturally wanted to see this exhibit all about holidays and other celebratory occasions.

The exhibit wound around the small museum, providing a glimpse into a calendar year of observances from January through December. It may have been summer when I visited, but I best remember the events that take place during the so-called holiday season: Christmas, Kwanzaa, Watch Night (New Year’s Eve), and John Canoe.

In a booklet from the exhibit, the page on John Canoe notes that this historical holiday in North Carolina is celebrated in modern times outside the United States: “It is similar in form and practice to a celebration found in the Caribbean, also called Junkanoo, which survived long after the U.S. version of the holiday ended.”

Anacostia Community Museum, summer 2009

Anacostia Community Museum, summer 2009

The particular object on display to represent John Canoe was a full-size lithograph from 1837 by Isaac Mendes Belisario, entitled “Jaw-bone, or House John Canoe,” showing a person dressed in bright colors and holding a house replica on top of the head. This house character is one of several that would be featured in the John Canoe parades. Others, also drawn by Belisario and seen illustrating this article by M.E. Lasseter on the University of North Carolina’s website, include Actor-Boy, Set Girls, and Jack in the Green.

Lasseter writes, “The bulk of scholarship about the practice comes from the Caribbean, and presents the practice itself as a Caribbean phenomenon, deriving from masking traditions in both European colonizing powers (primarily England and France) and in West Africa” and notes that these Caribbean celebrations take place between Christmas and New Year’s. Similarly, the Anacostia Community Museum’s exhibit brochure states that the “songs and music, danc[ing] and parad[ing]” in North Carolina lasted “sometimes from Christmas Eve until New Year’s Day.” Although the exhibit is no longer on display, those interested in learning more can begin with Lasseter’s article.

With 2016 almost behind us (good riddance!), happy New Year however you are celebrating!

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The Trains of Christmas

Train gardens are everywhere at this time of year: the Ellipse as mentioned in a previous post, the United States Botanic Garden, Brookside Gardens, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Museum in Baltimore and its smaller site in Ellicott City, Union Station, various local fire stations, and private homes.

Several years ago, amid visiting all these miniature train displays, I wondered, What do trains have to do with Christmas? When I searched the Internet, I learned that Paul D. Race must have wondered the same thing, leading him to write an article called “What Do Trains Have to Do with Christmas?”

Here are the three main reasons he concluded:

  • Trains as a symbol of the traveling of people, and mailing of gifts, that happen during the holidays. “Let’s face it,” writes Rice, “more people and stuff move at Christmas than any other time of year, and for over a century, more people and stuff moved by trains than any other way. So for many people, Christmas seemed to involve trains.”
  • The giving of model and toy trains as Christmas gifts.
  • The nostalgia evoked by trains, or “memories of simpler times.”

Race writes of the term “train garden” as particular to the Baltimore/DC region. In another article, the writer elaborates on the putzen in Pennsylvania, which may start with a Nativity scene and grow to include a whole town or village complete with railroads.

Miniature holiday train display at the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Museum in Baltimore, MD, 2005

Miniature holiday train display at the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Museum in Baltimore, MD, 2005

In December 2005, I visited the B&O Railroad Museum in Baltimore with family members, including my late grandfather who loved trains. We saw what are considered by some to be “the finest examples of railroad scale models ever produced” from the Smithsonian collection, climbed aboard real-life full-size railcars in the Roundhouse, and trained our eyes on the tiny details of a whimsical holiday miniature train display, including a carousel, a Starbucks, a diner, and Thomas the Tank Engine.

The exhibits at the museum showed big trains that people might have taken to visit loved ones for the holidays, and small trains that people may have given to loved ones as holiday gifts. As for the “memories of simpler times,” as a museum of railroad history, the B&O Railroad Museum is tasked with presenting not just the stories of the past that seem simple and happy, but also the complexities and the struggles. Among the museum’s educational offerings are lesson plans on topics such as slavery, the Civil War, and labor strikes, all in the context of the world of trains.

We may not have, or have ever had, simple times, yet trains are one of the many symbols of Christmas that add a little sense of magic to the world. Happy holidays, whatever you are celebrating and however you are getting there!

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Yesteryear’s Ye Olde Yule Log

It has been very cold outside in Washington, DC. For those of us fortunate enough to be able to curl up under layers of blankets with hot chocolate, such a course of action seems like the only reasonable thing to do in this weather. Yet there are all sorts of reasons to venture outside, not just jobs and socializing and gift shopping, but also seasonal outdoor exhibits and displays that draw high numbers of visitors despite low temperatures.

One such attraction is on the Ellipse, right outside the White House; it includes the National Christmas Tree, the National Menorah, smaller trees for each state and territory, miniature trains, a life-size Nativity scene, and a stage for performances of holiday song and dance. For many years, the Ellipse also featured Ye Olde Yule Log, a beloved fire pit whose symbolism derives from long-ago Solstice observances, and whose flames offered one warm spot in the park.

The Yule Log is an old (or olde) holiday tradition, with pagan roots celebrating the Winter Solstice, bringing warmth and light on the shortest/darkest day of the year. It has since been adopted as a Christmas tradition in various times and places as well.


Ye Olde Yule Log, in 2007

In a 2007 article in the Washington Post about Ye Olde Yule Log, words used by visitors to talk about the burning fire included dynamic, chaos theory, magical, alive. A 2009 Post article ends with a father writing of his daughter: “We visit Ye Olde Yule Log every Christmastime. Lily is going on 11 now. I suspect she still misses Santa Claus a little bit. Santa lives forever; not so, little girls. But the bonfire burns on year after year – a source of wonder, for both of us, that can survive getting older.”

Alas, the Yule Log on the Ellipse burned for its last year in 2011. The National Park Service redesigned the site layout, providing a backdrop of the White House (rather than the Chamber of Commerce) for the performance stage – and the Yule Log had to go. In a January 2014 letter to the editor of the Washington Post, one Yule Log fan describes her observations that in the Yule Log’s last years, NPS’s interpretation and maintenance of the installation had already been on the decline.

The letter writer was not the only one to be disappointed by the absence of Ye Olde Yule Log, as seen in this article from 2012 (the first year without it). I personally miss its presence and its warmth. And while the evergreen trees decorating the Ellipse also have a role in the Solstice tradition, it is a shame that the most obvious symbol of Winter Solstice has been removed from the display.

Tomorrow marks the Winter Solstice for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere. Whatever you are doing on the shortest day of the year, may you stay warm!

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Trump’s Museum Visits?

Remember that moment in Chapter 29 of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in which Neville is talking to Harry, Hermione, and Ron, filling them in on what they have missed at Hogwarts during their adventures searching for hallows and horcruxes? Neville says, “…he teaches what used to be Defense Against the Dark Arts, except now it’s just the Dark Arts.”

This scene is how I have felt for the past three weeks.

Meanwhile, my city, Washington, DC, is trying as hard as anyone else to prepare for the next four years. This evening on the bus, I overheard a conversation between two people who work either for or with HUD and the EPA, respectively. They were discussing which agency would have a harder time fulfilling its mission under its newly appointed secretary. Both agencies are in the midst of the transition process, like so many other federal agencies and buildings, including some that also serve as living museums or visitor destinations.

The White House is getting ready for its new First Family, and a treasure trove of memes show imagined conversations in which Vice President Biden describes, to a chagrined President Obama, the pranks he has planned. At the Capitol, offices will be prepared for newly elected legislators. Conspicuously absent from the frenzy of getting ready for new occupants is the Supreme Court, where the ninth seat sits empty, seven months after Justice Scalia’s death and six months after President Obama nominated Merrick Garland for the vacancy.

Trump International Hotel (which I last visited on the Fourth of July in 2013, when I knew it as the Old Post Office Pavilion) is required to keep the historical tower part open to the public, though it is currently closed for renovation until “late 2016.”

Other museums will reflect the change in administration as well. At the National Museum of American History, we will have to wait at least four years to find out how the First Ladies Exhibit might change when a woman is elected president. Melania Trump will be added to the exhibit, and Donald Trump will be added to the exhibits of presidents at NMAH as well as the National Portrait Gallery.

While Trump is living (at least part-time) in DC, he will have the opportunity not just to be a museum subject, but also a museum visitor. I recently asked, on Facebook, Twitter, and this blog, what DC-area museum Trump should be sure to visit and learn from during his presidency.

The answers I received included:

  • United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM)
  • National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC)
  • A science or natural history museum
  • All the Smithsonian museums
  • All the museums

Although Barack Obama is not my Facebook friend, he answered my question too! In fact, he answered it back in September, before anyone actually expected Trump to be elected. Like a couple of my Facebook friends, Obama recommends that Trump visit the new NMAAHC, calling on Trump and all of us to “use our history to propel us to make even more progress in the future.”

May our history propel us toward more progress, indeed. Many of us are afraid right now. It’s up to all of us to work toward building a reality in which these fears do not come true.

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Seven Recent Reads – Election Edition

  1. In a thoughtful blog post published a day before the election, Rebecca Herz asks, “What relationship do museums have for shaping the public’s relationship with facts?” and questions whether the open-ended approach to museum education, in which visitors make their own meaning, contributes to a climate in which various bits of false information are held up as truth. This post is especially pertinent in light of Google’s and Facebook’s recent efforts to stymie the proliferation of fake news in their networks, and questions that have risen in the last few weeks as to whether fake news stories played a role in the election results.
  2. The Center for the Future of Museums posted the conciliatory “Healing the Partisan Divide,” eliciting a heated discussion in the comments. In this post are statistics about the strong prevalence of Democrats in the museum field, and an argument for diversity of political viewpoints in the field.
  3. The American Institute of Architects (which manages the Octagon museum in DC) wrote a statement congratulating Donald Trump, with a focus on the importance of rebuilding infrastructure. This Washington Post article discusses architects’ opposition to the statement, and how AIA has since backpedaled and apologized.
  4. The Council of Non-Profits posted a thorough explanation of how the new administration’s policies (as well as the results of local elections) might change key aspects of the non-profit world, such as employment laws and incentives for charitable giving. (As so many museum staff, especially in the DC area, are employed by either non-profits or government, I am also sharing this article on Trump’s plans for federal employees, which consist of scaling back pay, protections, and positions.)
  5. In New York City, the Tenement Museum has seen an uptick in hostile remarks about immigration since the election, according to this article. The museum is working to provide all staff with tools for responding to such commentary as it continues to interpret the history of immigration to the United States.
  6. Carly Dunne wrote an article in Hyperallergic about artist Annette Lemieux’s request that her work on display at the Whitney Museum, Left Right Left Right, be turned upside down in response to Trump’s winning of the electoral vote and thereby the presidency.
  7. Hundreds of Jewish historians have signed a statement on the election and the spike in hate crimes that followed. Most of the signers are affiliated with universities, but two represent museums (the Senator John Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh, and the Center for Jewish History in New York City). The scholars write,

“As scholars of Jewish history, we are acutely attuned to the fragility of democracies and the consequences for minorities when democracies fail to live up to their highest principles….We stand ready to wage a struggle to defend the constitutional rights and liberties of all Americans. It is not too soon to begin mobilizing in solidarity.”

For more on how museums are responding to the election, see this issue of Dispatches for the Future of Museums, as well as the #museumsthedayafter hashtag on Twitter.

And a question for readers: what museum should Donald Trump be sure to visit (and learn from) in the four years he will be living (at least part-time…) in DC?

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Veterans Day 2016

This gallery contains 3 photos.

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