A new generation of curators

Last summer, I was faced with a bit of a conundrum. We had just concluded another great “Teens in History” event. Once again, the Junior Historians had done an amazing job of researching their topics and presenting that knowledge to visitors of all ages. But once that day was over, their hard work just vanished. This didn’t seem right.

At the same time, I had been doing a bit of reading. Specifically, Nina Simon’s The Participatory Museum and D. Lynn McRainey’s and John Russick’s Connecting Kids to History Through Museum Exhibitions. All these thoughts merged into an idea: what if we let the Junior Historians do an exhibit? What if we let them add a layer of interpretation to one of our buildings?

So I went to Gary and Evelyn, after first asking them to read a bit of Nina Simon, and presented my idea. Evelyn didn’t have the typical curatorial heart attack at the thought of turning teens loose in an exhibit. We decided to turn the Doctor’s Office over to them and would begin work in January.

Ultimately, ten of my Junior Historians, ranging in age from 12 to 18, were able to participate.

Emily (age 12): “I became part of this project really because I always thought the Doctor’s Office was one of the less-visited buildings. I think this might be because it’s not purple (like the Blum House across the street) and it’s not as exciting as Mammoth Jack Donkeys (right next door). By adding a little something to the building, I hope it would bring in more people because health was really important at that time in history.

Kyra (age 14) added: “I like that we can show the world, or at least Dallas, that we aren’t just lazy teens. I very much appreciate that Melissa gave us the chance to help and do our best work. I love what we did! I think we added something to the doctor’s office that will appeal to other teens and younger kids.”

We divided into teams to tackle the project in pieces. We met every 4 to 6 weeks to make decisions as a group and discuss the things we discovered. Evelyn met with us as well, to answer some of those curatorial questions that an educator just can’t. We read some of the research about how to write labels. Though I certainly guided them, all the exhibit decisions were made by them, and they wrote and researched every bit of it.

Meghan (age 16), Emily, and Caroline (age 18) tackled the labels. As Meghan put it: “We have had a collaborative effort on creating what the tours will say (not just grammatical like what would sound best where, but what information we want to include) and where the signs will go so that the information flows well from room to room.”

Sydney (age 13), Isabel (age 13), Evelyn (age 14) and Raquel (age 15) were the Apothecary Team. As Isabel explained: “I am probably most proud of how well the flip books with the information about the medicines went, considering the fact that our group spent such a huge amount of time on them! It wasn’t a disappointment at all. I also saw that lots of the visitors were interested in them.

While I was working on researching the different types of medicines, I asked my dad, a doctor, if he recognized any of the Latin names for the herbs. As a matter of fact, he did recognize some of them! A few of the herbs are still used today, such as in cough medicine or as an herbal remedy for headaches. It’s interesting that while many of the remedies prescribed have changed (thankfully!), some of them actually did work well enough to be used in modern medicine.

It was also kind of a funny surprise stumbling across medicines with quirky names, such as Long John the Conqueror root, false unicorn, or five-finger-grass.

I was surprised (and glad) to see that so many of the visitors on July 4th stopped and looked through every. single. medicine. in each flip book, and were so interested in every part of the exhibit, pausing for a little while in each room, discussing their newfound information, asking their children questions: “So, what do you think that is for? And where does this come from?” Listening to the younger kids’ enthusiastic–and imaginative–answers was both gratifying and rather entertaining to hear.”

Grace (age 13) and Kyra worked on the medical tools. Grace wrote “I like researching and learning about the antique medical tools and how they are similar to tools that modern doctors still use.”

In addition to the written labels, they also wrote and recorded two scripts for the cell phone tour. One script, primarily written by Emily, lets Alice the Skeleton explain exactly how she came to be hanging out in a Doctor’s Office. Kaitlin (age 17) wrote another script that tells the Doctor’s Assistant’s side of the story. He may or may not have been responsible for Alice’s death. . .

In the end, we ended up with a pretty fabulous exhibit. On June 30, a very hot day, we hosted a reception to celebrate the project and all of our Junior Historians. As Gary put it “From a museum perspective, this is top quality museum work, making the Doctor’s Office a very informative, realistic, and interesting attraction at Dallas Heritage Village.” This exhibit will be up for quite some time, so please be sure to check out the Doctor’s Office the next time you visit. As Meghan put it “What I like about this project is that the Junior Historians are finally getting to put a stationary stamp on Dallas Heritage Village, and it is fantastic that we get to be more included and I get to be a part of it.” Emily added “I like that we get to express our thoughts and ideas and show them to the public. I like the feeling that I might be getting someone interested in history through what I contribute to the exhibit.”

So what’s next for this group of kids? We’re leaving the option open to maybe add a few little things to the Doctor’s Office in the year to come. Emily wrote: “If I could add anything to the exhibit, I think it would be cool to focus on the stories of individual objects that visitors might be interested in, such as the wheelchair and the doctor’s bag. In fact, I learned what people were interested in while working in the Doctor’s Office during Old-Fashioned Fourth. One woman talked about her grandfather having a set of scales and weights like in the Apothecary, and one little boy even got excited over the amputation kit!”

As for the big project for next year, well, you’ll just have to wait and see. But rest assured—with these teens, it will be fabulous!

If you’d like to get a taste of the new Doctor’s Office Exhibit from the comfort of your own home, dial into the cell phone tour. The number is 214-452-7854. Alice’s story is 71# and the Doctor’s Assistant’s story is 72#.

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