Sunday, January 17, 2016

Boundary Crossing in Museums


In the first of two guest posts, Andrea Jones, Director of Programs and Visitor Engagement, Accokeek Foundation in Maryland reflects on what pushing out interpretive boundaries at a colonial farm to become more relevant and meaningful. Stay tuned for part 2!

Creativity is often described as “thinking outside the box.” But have you ever contemplated just how arbitrary these boxes are? While teaching high school anthropology, I learned that the concept of race doesn’t even really exist, biologically.  (Mind = blown!) It’s all a spectrum of physical attributes that are categorized differently all over the world. Yet, from an early age I was conditioned to check the “Caucasian” box on every required form. Consequently, the cultural concept of race affected my identity in a profound way.

Lots of other boxes are arbitrary, too. And today’s society increasingly questions those definitions as more voices are heard. Are there more genders than just male and female? What is an American? Is Pluto a planet?



Boxes can be comforting and useful since they help us to understand the world around us, but they are also limiting. They don’t honor the complexity of life and the myriad possibilities that exist when boundaries are crossed.

Looking at categories as arbitrary human creations is a powerful way to shift your perspective and unlock creative new approaches to interpretation 
in museums.

Here are three boundaries [two in this post, one to come] we crossed at my museum (Accokeek Foundation) and how crossing them helped us to increase our relevancy and challenge our thinking.

First, what is Accokeek Foundation (AF)? AF is a partner of the National Park Service on Piscataway Park just south of Washington, D.C., in Maryland. We steward and interpret 200 acres of this park, including two farms. One of these farms, the National Colonial Farm, has used living history for over 40 years to interpret the lives and techniques of middling tobacco-growers in the colonial era. 

Using History to Teach Environmental Science

Along the east coast, where we are, you can’t throw a stone without hitting a butter churn or a spinning wheel. There is no shortage of historic farms to get your colonial fix. And frankly, the hey-day of this kind of interpretation seems to have passed. We decided it was time to look outside of the discipline of colonial history in its purest form. It was time for a remix.

One day a visiting mom said to her child, “See, aren’t we lucky we have electricity and cars, and all the things we have today?” I thought about what she said. Yes, life was definitely more convenient. But through the lens of environmentalism, all of the convenience has come at a great cost.


Coal burning plant with mining in front.  Photo:  Getty

What if the colonial era was a starting point for the story of the most challenging environmental issues today?

Instead of considering 1770 (our chosen interpretive year) as a time just before the American Revolution, what if we used this snapshot in time to look at family habits in an era when people were more directly connected to each environmental choice they made?

Today, water comes out of our bathroom sink – but from where? How much energy does it take?


"Hidden from view" water treatment plant     Where does water come from?

How does that compare to colonial times? The typical middling colonial family knew exactly how much energy (physical energy) it took to haul water from a nearby stream or well. They used it judiciously – approximately 4 gallons/day per person (according to our estimates). Today, each American uses between 80-100 gallons/day. That is a 2,000% increase in water use.


Most of us are completely disconnected to the “secret life of water” because of today’s complex infrastructure, urbanization, and increased job specialization. We don’t know how much energy is used in treatment plants and how little fresh water is readily available as the population swells and the climate changes.  By combining two disciplines, we can look at scientific issues with an eye towards understanding changes in human behavior through time.


In an initiative we call Green History, we rotate themes on the farm every 6- 8 weeks or so: Energy Conservation and Climate Change; Water Conservation; The Health of Soil; Food Waste; etc. Our first-person colonial interpreters invite visitors to join them in activities that act as conversation starters around the theme. For example, they help to carry water using a yoke to help our colonial family do laundry or water plants.

It’s hard work. But instead of leaving visitors with the shallow understanding that “life was hard back then,” we try to redirect that assumption to a bigger question:

“What is more important, convenience or conservation?
Can we have both?”

Colonial interpreters are trained to start dialogues designed to get visitors talking about this question, to help them draw comparisons between colonial life and their lives.

The interpretation is not designed to romanticize the past. Although colonial people used less water, they also did not have the benefit of current-day sanitation afforded by convenient water – sanitation that saves lives. It’s complex.

Seeing history through the lens of science has been a hugely impactful perspective-changer for our institution, as well as for me personally. But I’d be lying if I said it’s been easy to thread the needle, given that visitors expect a purely historical experience.


We work continually to try out different scripted conversation starters to help get visitors to think of themselves as current-day environmental decision-makers, while surrounded by the past. Part of the challenge is branding ourselves as an institution known for this kind of interpretation so that people are attracted to the experience because of its environmental conscience – rather than colonial history alone.

Time Traveling from Present to Past

The Colonial Era, as a specific category of history, was another boundary crossed. We wanted to completely erase that famous question that is often asked in history class: “What does this have to do with me?”

Each of our Green History themes includes a small hand-made exhibit that draws attention to a current-day environmental issue. This issue is then brought to life in the past on our colonial farm. Visitors usually encounter the current-day exhibit first, which provides a great way to frame their experience in 1770.

Since most of these exhibits are staffed by an interpreter, the area becomes a center for questions that you can’t ask a first-person colonial character.

During our Food Waste theme, we created sight rare to most colonial farms – a bicycle rigged to a compost tumbler. The odd contraption was meant to draw people in to talk to our staff member about compost.


They could take a spin on the “Hot Rot” (as we called it) and also play a compost sorting game to win $2,200 in fake money (the cash value of the food wasted by the average American family of four each year).  

Visitors were then invited back to 1770, to help the Bolton family to do some fall food preservation. The living history interpreters on the farm taught visitors preservation methods that have been lost in recent generations (pickling, drying, repurposing apples into apple butter, etc.).


The characters also make efforts to communicate something deeper – the true value of food when you are the human who has grown it from seed. Wasting is not so easy when agricultural plants are precious and cared for over many months.

This past to present boundary crossing is an explicit way for our visitors to connect history to their lives. It gives a fuller picture of a specific current-day issue – that it didn’t just pop up out of nowhere. These problems are the product of many thousands of decisions made by everyday people over time.

It also becomes obvious how RECENT some our environmental problems are. Food waste has increased by 50% since the year I was born (1970!). The brevity of the problem actually gives me hope that the trajectory of this course can be altered. We want to pass on this feeling of hope and empowerment that the context of history provides. The future of history is not inevitable.

7 comments:

Ginny MacKenzie Magan said...

Thanks for this. It -- as are all the Uncataloged Museum posts -- are interesting and thought-provoking. And boy do we all need our thoughts provoked from time to time!

One "box" (maybe in the study of history, the biggest one) is Time itself. By this I mean thinking of the past and History as THEN and the present as NOW. In the big picture of course, the nation's colonial era is minutes (may even seconds) ago, and I believe a huge value of history (and what I say to the kids who ask, "What does all this have to do with us?") is the connection it lends to the physical world and humanity of all times, including tomorrow.

The concept of History is, in some ways, one of those defining boxes everyone checks in his mind, and really, time's a continuum we are all on. To me, this is the most wonderful thing about the study of history (easiest I guess with local history, where I think the study should begin) : The connection to humanity and the glimmer of a sense of what it means to be human. Thanks again for this forum!

Susan Fohr said...

As someone who has spent most of their museum career working as an historic interpreter, I have always found it frustrating to speak about or demonstrate techniques used by people in the past to meet the needs of everyday life and hear visitors bemoan how certain knowledge is no longer being passed down or certain crafts are no longer being practiced. I was learning how to cook on a cast iron stove, experimenting with historic preserving methods, spinning yarn from raw fleece and discovering local plants that could be used to dye fabric at a living history site during the period when the local food movement was getting traction within mainstream society and there was a resurgence of interest in knitting. Museums have an opportunity to provide a venue for teaching traditional skills, but I think even more importantly we should be connecting with communities of practice within society at large AND addressing what benefits may lie in adapting these practices into contemporary life. (I think museums have a lot to learn from the maker movement.) I applaud the National Colonial Farm for its commitment to making such connections between past and present through its interpretive approach.

Ginny MacKenzie Magan said...

Susan Fohr is right -- museums are the perfect institutions to encourage the connection we have with the past AND the future. And the Maker movement is a great example of this type of connection happening. Hooray for that, and for anything that makes us aware of the Connection. Architecture is another prompt toward awareness of the Connection. DOING the same kinds of things (with the same problems and challenges) as our predecessors did, LIVING or working in and around the same buildings...it all connects us to those humans who were here before. And I suppose what we leave -- the work we did, the words we wrote. the pictures we painted -- will connect us to the future.

Andrea Jones said...

As a side note (as if this post isn't long enough), I do think that when people visit historic sites, some of them are crossing boundaries on their own. A colonial cooking demo may inspire them to think about the Doritos in their bag and the environmental impact of our food system today. That's true constructivism. They're building on their prior knowledge etc. What we're trying to do is to make these connections explicit -- putting the chocolate in the peanut butter, so to speak, right there for them to see. And branding it as such.

Sarah Sutton said...

Marvelous post...spot-on reply!

Sarah Sutton said...

Marvelous post...spot-on reply!

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