Despite mandates to be community-focused, many historical organizations struggle to interest younger visitors. Family programming is a great outreach method to include small children, but as kids grow, hanging out with their peers usually becomes a stronger draw for them than parent-guided activities.
Many museums and historic sites currently support school groups by hosting field trips. Some even offer history-in-a-box kits to augment curriculum and serve students, while allowing the school to avoid the inconvenience and expense of field-trip transport. Many also offer enrichment opportunities for home school families. While this audience is often more convenient for standard museum hours and staff schedules, it excludes many youth who may be interested or could benefit from historical resources. The NC Museum of History, for instance, has a selection of programs available each month for school-age children during the school day. In addition to home schoolers, tracked out students are the only possible participants.
For the past 2 years NCDCR has been reaching out further to promote its facilities and services to the home school contingent by buying exhibit space at the annual home school conference in Winston Salem. NCDCR-organized programs such as Tar Heel Jr. Historians clubs and NC History Day have disproportionate numbers of home-school participants. The in-depth scholarly activities that these organizations nurture are often an easier fit for home-schoolers and may conflict with scheduling and test-preparation directives in standard public school classrooms.
Since many of the activities NCDCR and many other history organizations offer are not reaching the general population of youth enrolled in public schools, is there a way to bridge the gap and engage teens with programming at times that work for them? Can limited staff resources stretch to accommodate more after-school-hours activities? Even then, will kids care to show up? Here are a couple of ideas from other parts of the country that have been low-budget, widely accessible, and successful:
- A California organization set up several “Community Science Workshop” spaces filled with interactives and set up as a drop-in free resource in a walkable location to kid-filled housing areas.
- The Seattle Art Museum has used social media effectively to promote a regular teen night out successfully.
Could either of these model programs work at your institution? What does your organization do to engage youth? Which activities and methods of promotion have been successful? What could be improved?
Today is smack in the middle of the National History Day contest in Washington, DC and a great time to think about the reasons and the ways you and your site could become more involved in this event for 2015 and beyond.
- Reaching out to students through the NHD program can help your organization engage important family, student, and teacher subgroups with its collections and other research resources.
- A focus on the local and the personal can help the past become more meaningful for many students.
- Student projects regularly involve detailed and poignant oral histories relating to significant issues with local connections. These student-generated primary sources could become contributions to your institutional research materials.
- NHD is a great way to further your organization’s likely mission of promoting state, local, or topic-focused history to the public.
One teacher’s award nomination attested, “two visits to the Western Archives and a warm welcome by Jeff Futch and Heather South” showed students “that resources reach beyond the internet and in fact, are alive in their own backyard of Western North Carolina.”
- Contact Laura Ketcham, Outreach Coordinator for the NC Department of Cultural Resources and NHD coordinator at the state level, to gather the contact information for participating teachers in your area. Invite teachers and students for a tour of your site, while introducing them to primary sources and possible research topics relating to collections.
- The 2015 NHD theme (to which all successful student projects must relate) is “Legacy and Leadership.” By brainstorming connections between this theme and the resources your institution can offer beforehand, your meeting with teachers and/or students can be even more effective.
- Contact the appropriate NHD regional coordinator and volunteer to serve as a judge for the regional contest. (If interested in serving as a judge at the state level, and traveling to Raleigh is manageable, please let Laura Ketcham know.) Judging is a great way to introduce yourself to the a range of NHD project types and quality, to familiarize yourself with the regional educators involved in this event, and to bask in the glow of youthful enthusiam for learning.
In the words of one of this year’s 8th-grade participants, NHD was a valuable experience because, “I was able to take a subject that interests me and learn about it in depth. I was able to find people in my community who had personal experience with my topic and I would never have found them or talked to them if not for NHD.”
The NHD program, with its competition and deadlines, coaxes students to delve into a topic more deeply and explore it more broadly than they would likely do otherwise at the middle and high school levels. Please consider joining them on their exciting journeys of historical discovery.