The Western Reserve Historical Society (WRHS) has acquired multiple historic homes and sites over the past 150 years. One of these sites is well known and situated in Bath, Ohio. This past summer I spent three months as a museum education intern at Hale Farm and Village. Hale Farm and Village is a living history museum that is comprised of more than thirty historic homes. Also known as “open-air” museums, living history museums allow visitors to explore their grounds freely and interact in innovative ways with educators. In other words, museum educators are dressed in period clothing and demonstrate daily life in the likeness of a nineteenth-century setting. As an educator, I was responsible for researching the home where I was stationed in order to present factual information to the guests. In addition, I became the mouthpiece of the museum and had to responsibly educate not only adults, but also numerous groups of children visiting from their day care camps. I soon realized that children had little interest in historical facts, but would prosper greatly from making connections between the past and present.
Dry sinks, chamber pots, rug beaters, foot warmers, fireplaces, fountain pens, and stoves become objects that connected the past to the present. I relied heavily on sensory objects for children. I engaged them by asking, “What is that smell?” as the wood-burning stove roars behind me. Objects can elicit exploration and critical thinking. I asked a young boy and girl if they saw a dishwasher. They looked all over the kitchen and were puzzled by my question. I looked at them and they looked at me, and finally I said, “Well, I am looking at my dishwasher right now.” I then explained that the object that looked like a cabinet with multiple sized ceramic bowls was a dry sink and they would be in charge of hauling in water and scrubbing the pots in the sink. The children and I ended up having a long discussion about their responsibilities at home and if children 175 years ago had similar roles within the family. I left that day with a feeling of satisfaction after seeing them making connections between the past and present.
Not only was I using problem-solving education with children, but also with adults. Some audiences wished only for facts, but others were more inclined to interrogate the past and ask challenging questions. I learned to allow the audience and myself to sleuth together rather than provide a straightforward, didactic answer. For instance, one day I was making candles and a group of adults visited me. I went through the normal miniature lecture about the type of wax I was using and how many times I had to dip the candle. I finally asked them how many candles I would need to make to last my family the entire year. They replied with a perplexed look and said, “Well, there are 365 days in a year with 24 hours in a day so they must have made….” He gave me this large number and when I replied with 200 to 300 candles, he was completely astonished. We then spiraled into a dialogic history regarding how a routine day would begin in the nineteenth century. He made connections between the past and present and continued to ponder the difficulties that having limited lighting would pose.
I learned numerous public history skills that allowed me to understand the different careers I can embark on in graduate school, my intended next step. WRHS hired twenty-two interns for various positions within the museum both at the University Circle location (Cleveland History Center) and Hale Farm and Village. The diverse university representation was quite impressive. Students traveled from all over Ohio: Wooster, Dayton, Cleveland, Columbus, Medina, Hudson, and Brunswick. Our Monday class sessions enlightened us on prospective paths within the museum world such as curator, registrar, archivist, and preservationist, among others. In addition, we were also granted access to behind-the-scenes areas such as storage for both manuscript collections and the museum’s costume collection. We created a mini-documentary in order to recap our past few months spent at our internship. This project turned out to be informative and challenging. However, I was quite satisfied not only with my own video project, but viewing the rest of the cohort’s videos to better understand the projects they were working on simultaneously. Our sessions touched on topics such as museum ethics and posed difficult questions that public historians must face. Public historians assume multiple responsibilities that include interpreting complex and sensitive topics in history. There is more to museum work than preservation and arranging exhibits. Ethics and morals are continuously questioned within the museum. Public historians must consider all aspects of interpretation prior to creating didactic plaques and selecting certain artifacts for display. In addition, they must master objectivity while presenting both simple and complex pieces that may evoke strong sentiments.It was challenging to answer difficult ethical questions, but it gave me a stronger understanding of what it truly entails to pursue this path.
There are often points in history that prove to be challenging to capture and interpret in a clear and objective format. Visitors can be opinionated and challenge history, making educators wary of their words. I determined that it was beneficial to listen politely and understand their perspectives. Not all guests will have similar views and it is imperative to understand that museums are alluring to diverse audiences. I found this tactic useful and felt satisfied when both the guest and myself learned new views. Under these circumstances, shared authority with the public was the most effective tactic.
Overall, I had a wonderful experience working for Hale Farm and Village. I have grown as a student and aspiring historian. I have built my public speaking skills and learned new tactics for educating the public about thorny topics that can often become divisive. If anything, it has been a challenging experience that has altered my perspective of museum work and increased my respect for those who endeavor to interpret history for public audiences. As far as my future career path, I have chosen to remain at Hale Farm and Village as a museum educator in order to expand my knowledge and access more skill sets. The museum world has been a fascinating adventure that I can see myself actively pursuing in the future.