Interpretation Throughout the Lifespan

As a public historian, I am constantly challenged by the need to conduct interpretive tours that provide accessible historical knowledge to people of all ages. I’ve been thinking about this challenge a lot lately because I feel like I have a lot of room for improvement when it comes to working with children who participate in my interpretive tours at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site. Most of my training as an educator and historian has revolved around teaching history to people from about age twelve and up, and my Missouri teacher certification covers grades 5-12.

Interpretation guru Freeman Tilden argued in his 1957 publication Interpreting Our Heritage that “interpretation addressed to children (say, up to the age of twelve) should not be a dilution of the presentation to adults, but should be a fundamentally different approach. To be at its best it will require a separate program.” Tilden’s argument may sound fairly basic and obvious, but it’s surprisingly easy for interpreters to overlook the needs of children when giving their presentations. I’ve been on plenty of tours where interpreters only address the adults in their audiences without even acknowledging the presence of the children there.

When I worked for the Capitol Tour Office at the Indiana State House, the educational focus of my tours was clear cut. Sometimes I gave tours to groups with upwards of more than 100 fourth graders, while at other times I did tours with senior groups, government officials, and other adult groups. Most of time I had a clear idea of who my audience was and what I needed to do as an educator to make my tours inclusive and accessible. Generally speaking, I made sure to make the student tours “interactive” through the use of visuals and active questioning that challenged students to recall their prior knowledge of Indiana history and civics. During adult tours I usually did a more straight-forward presentation with time for audience questions throughout the tour.

Life’s a little more difficult at ULSG because you simply cannot predict who is going to come through the door for your tours. What do you do when you have a group of five adults and five children, three of which are under age 12? How would you make this tour inclusive for both the adults and children? Do you focus on addressing the groups as if they were all adults and simply sprinkle a few questions that you address to the children to make it more inclusive, or do you compose a completely separate program largely geared around the children? Since I have a ten-minute limit for giving my interpretations, should I cut out important historical context related to Grant’s life and the history of his family so that I can focus on asking more questions and providing definitions for complex topics like slavery on tours with many children? Is there a good way to delicately talk about slavery and secession to groups with children under twelve? Tilden’s principle of inclusive children’s tours seems to fall short when attempting to wrestle with these interpretive challenges because the answer oftentimes cannot be whittled down to “do a separate program for the best results.”

I am curious to hear from other public historians, museum practitioners, and educators about their own experiences working with children under twelve in an interpretive setting. I’d also like to find relevant scholarship that addresses these questions. A search of the database for the National Council on Public History’s quarterly publication The Public Historian on JSTOR unfortunately yielded no results for any scholarship about working with children. Larry Beck and Ted Cable’s 2002 publication Interpretation for the 21st Century: Fifteen Guiding Principles for Interpreting Nature and Culture dedicates an entire chapter to “interpreting throughout the lifespan,” including children, teenagers, and seniors, but I found that chapter remarkably unhelpful to me; the authors focus exclusively on providing ideas for introducing kids to nature without any mention of the need to connect kids to history and culture. I find those omissions indicative of just how difficult it is for interpreters to make history (especially if it’s intangible history) relevant and accessible to young audiences.

Every audience I work with is unique and presents an interpretive challenge for me. Although I have experience working with children under twelve, I believe I still have a lot of work to do before I can get to a point where I feel comfortable working with groups that are mixed-age or mostly composed of children under age twelve.


[Addendum: I should add that one book I find quite helpful when comes to museum education and educational theories is Deborah L. Perry’s What Makes Learning Fun? Principles for the Design of Intrinsically Motivating Museum Exhibits. I highly recommend purchasing it.]