June 2009: Encouraging Family Learning in History Museums

A family rests in the hammock, where a sailor in 1812 would have only slept for 4 hours at a time.

Recipient: USS Constitution Museum, Boston, MA

Grant: 2004 IMLS National Leadership Grant, 2008 21st Century Museum Professionals Grant

Pictured: A family rests in the hammock, where a sailor in 1812 would have only slept for 4 hours at a time.

Burt Logan, President
(617) 426-1812

Anne Grimes, Rand
Project Director
(617) 426-1812 x 121

Web Site:

Photo by Greg Cooper, courtesy of the USS Constitution Museum.

Bringing History to Life at the USS Constitution Museum in Boston

In the age of high-tech gadgetry, the USS Constitution Museum in Boston is engaging families in the lives of the crew members on the two-century-old ship and their nineteenth-century voyages.

The museum is opening a new exhibit this summer called "All Hands on Deck: A Sailor’s Life in 1812." It is the result of more than three years of studying what intrigued family groups about the ship and its history and just as important, what aspects they found less than intriguing.

The museum combined a 2004 Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) National Leadership Grant with private donations to take a close-up look at families visiting the museum and how they engage in learning about life on "Old Ironsides."

A 2007 study by Reach Advisors, a strategy and audience research firm, showed that of 5,500 families of young children that had visited museums, only 23 percent chose to visit history museums. Visiting a history museum was often viewed as boring, perhaps too much like another day in a classroom. But Burt Logan, president of the USS Constitution Museum, and Anne Grimes Rand, the museum’s executive vice president and the project director for the extensive revamping of exhibits, said they viewed that as a challenge and opportunity.

With innovative thinking, they hoped to attract families with grade-school-age children who were just beginning to learn about the American past. They wanted to create exhibits that engaged visitors to think about the past rather than merely reading placards reciting facts about it.

The idea was to create a museum where the hands-on exhibits were so compelling that visitors, with a little prompting from signs and instructions, could proceed without a staff member telling them what to do next. This strategy also reduced the need to staff the museum during the primary spring-to-fall tourist season—63 hours a week, Rand said.

"That’s a lot of hours to staff," said Rand. "We were thinking a lot of museums don’t have that staff either." Logan said, "We wanted [families] to be drawn into an unfacilitated gallery."

Now the USS Constitution Museum has placed its findings and suggestions from its three-year transformation on a Web site (http://familylearningforum.org), an online resource of 100 successful family programs as well as transcripts, videos, podcasts of the workshops, and links to supporting resources. The online tutorial is particularly aimed at history museums trying to attract youths accustomed to the immediacy of the Internet and the high-tech graphics of computer games.

Executives at the USS Constitution Museum said that history museums searching for family visitors ought to be asking themselves such questions as "How family friendly is your facility?" "Are there effective elements for family interaction?" and "What types of events do you offer for families?"

A Challenge Met

At the USS Constitution Museum, the result of this introspection was a prototype exhibit called "A Sailor’s Life for Me?" It sought to capture the rigors of sea life in the early 1800s in a way that led parents and their children to talk and think about the era as they walked through the museum.

The first stop on becoming a sailor in 1812 was a "house of rendezvous," a tavern-like place where naval officers asked potential recruits about their lives, health, and physical well-being.

"Do you have all your teeth?" was one of the questions a Constitution recruiter might ask potential shipmates. "Do have all your fingers? We certainly don’t want someone with scurvy on the ship."

What Appeals to Visitors?

In the summers of 2005 to 2007, museum executives watched how visitors reacted to such questions and tweaked the exhibit as they learned what fascinated museum-goers and what left them puzzled or just plain uninterested. The museum interviewed 2,500 families about their visits.

The museum found that visitors took only seven minutes to walk through a traditional recitation of history exhibits on the museum’s first floor, but stayed 22 minutes on the second floor once the sailors’ exhibit opened. "There were more conversations, more dialogue, and more exchanges. The contrast is very striking," Logan said.

One other thing the free museum noticed: Its voluntary donations doubled after the new exhibit opened, from $74,328 in 2005 to $151,665 in 2007.

Scott Simpson, a Boston marketing executive, was impressed after visiting the ship and museum last Thanksgiving weekend with seven children aged 3 to 14—along with his brother-in-law and father-in-law.

"The interactivity of it was outstanding," he said. "The museum does a great job of bringing the ship to life. You can sand some decking to feel what it was like to be on that ship, climb some ropes to see what it was like to be on the rigging, or lie on the bunks. It’s meant to engage, whether you are a three-year-old or an adult. It was not just an exhibit you look at."

After visiting the museum, one middle-school student left a note saying, "I paid attention here, but not in school."

Comments like those are music to the ears of museum managers, who spent three years earning them.

Fine-Tuning the Exhibit

During the first version of the recruiting scenario, the museum soon realized that visitors wanted to play specific roles, either as the "recruiter" or the would-be "sailor." So visitors now sit on opposite sides of a table with flipbooks of related pictures and questions for the recruiter to ask the recruit. Rand said some visitors said, "Let us keep score" about how they were doing as potential sailors on board USS Constitution, so the museum laid out paper score sheets for anyone who wanted them. Logan said the museum had visitors score the exhibits as well on a movie-like rating system of one to five stars. "We wanted to get everything up to four or five stars," he added.

In the end, not all parts of the exhibit made the cut. For instance, the museum ditched a segment in which visitors selected what they wanted to put into their sea bag of personal belongings. "This one just fell flat," Rand said. "It was just not compelling enough, no matter what we tried."

But that was not true of most parts of the exhibit. Museum officials found that questions comparing sailors’ lives with modern sensibilities worked best to engage young and old alike. One such question asks visitors, "How would you like to start your day with a cold saltwater scrub instead of a hot shower?"

The museum is now readying "All Hands on Deck" for a June opening. The duct tape and cardboard exhibits of the prototype are being replaced with exhibits that Logan said are meant to "stand up to the rigors of 300,000 to 400,000 visitors a year for 15 or 20 years."

The museum is also sharing lessons learned from the NLG-supported project. In 2008, IMLS awarded the museum a 21st Century Museum Professionals grant so the museum could share its theories, techniques, resources, and best practices with museum professionals through workshops and expansion of the familylearningforum.org Web site.