Monday, March 31, 2008

Daring to Make History Fun

Today my former Canadian History professor, Graham Broad, sent me a link to the Ultimate Canadian History Site, explaining that it was created for the Grade 10 Social Studies class and very blog worthy. As I am always looking for interesting things to write about, I clicked on the link and was surprised by what I saw. This site did not appear to be a typical curriculum based history website at all, with the home page containing pictures of people with pretend Maple Leaf tattoos on their faces...but I knew I was at the right place when the first activity I noticed was “History Songs” which encourages students to “sing yourself through your social studies classes”.

Overwhelmed by curiosity I clicked on the History Songs section and started simultaneously reading into the background of the site and downloading a song entitled “Louis Louis Riel”. I quickly learned that this website was created by Shawna Audet, who began writing social studies songs to get her students more interested in Canadian History; not only did her creative approach work with her students, but Audet was also funded by Historica to compile her history songs into an album entitled Beaver Tales (academics will be happy to know she includes notes on each of her songs). Audet has still made all of the songs downloadable on her site, and encourages people to purchase the album to show they support the product.

Audet has also completed historical research in order to create history quizzes that allow to students to find out which historical figures they are most like, and her latest project “Mini-Canada” encourages students to think about what it means to be Canadian. The description of this project asks students, “What does it mean to be Canadian? This question doesn't come with a simple little answer that we can all memorize before we move on to our next social studies lesson. Instead, it leads to more questions. For example, what do Canadians look like? What do Canadians value?” This project involves students doing research using Statistic Canada, thinking independently about their findings, and presenting their information in video format, which can be uploaded and watched on the website.

The website itself has some serious weaknesses: I found it hard to navigate, some of the links did not work properly, and I could not find where to sign up so that I could take the quizzes. I also have not had the chance to really look into the quality of the historical content. That being said, I really like the enthusiasm and sense of fun that Audet brings to the study of history. As many of my blogs have stressed, I am really inspired by people and institutions that dare to present history in unique and dynamic ways. Audet demonstrates that getting people excited about history can be something as simple (and silly) as the history songs, which have the potential to make people laugh and learn at the same time.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Appealing to the Curious George in all of Us

In a recent post, I wrote about the Waterloo Regional Children’s Museum’s attempt to improve the museum’s attendance by working on making the museum appeal to a larger audience and by drawing in visitors through the use of the highly anticipated traveling exhibit Discovering Chimpanzees: The Remarkable World of Jane Goodall”. Upon actually visiting the Children’s Museum, I was equally impressed with both the permanent displays as well as the traveling exhibit.

From the moment one enters the building and walks into the “Grand Atrium” the museum exhibits evoke a sense of wonder and fun. Most noticeable is the abundance of colourful lanterns hanging from the ceiling, which the museum pamphlet explains are part of the Taiwan Lantern Festival of Colour. This cultural exhibit includes 200 lanterns that were hand painted by Taiwanese elementary school students. While waiting in line to pay admission ($5.00 to $7.00 per person during the regular season, and $8.00 to $10.00 during special exhibits), children and adults alike were pointing and gesturing towards the bright lanterns.

Similar to more traditional museums, the Children’s Museum does maintain a small collection of artifacts from Gaudie’s Department Store, who were the original occupants of the building. What distinguishes the Children’s Museum from their more traditional counterparts, is that they are no longer continuing to collect historical artifacts. Instead, the museum is more interested in acquiring more modern and interactive objects. For example, one display contains numerous computers whose manufacturing dates range from 1981 to 2002. Visitors are encouraged to play computer games on each, so that they can see how computers have changed over the course of the last twenty years. This type of focus is typical of children’s museums, as Edward Alexander explains in his text on the history of museums that, “A children’s museum collects objects, not for their rarity, but for their usefulness in interpretation or education. Their exhibitions may include objects, but their intent is to engage, intrigue, and inform their visitors.”[1]

The Jane Goodall exhibit itself was also more compelling than I had anticipated. The children visiting the museum loved the “Chimp Forest” which allowed them to climb into a chimp nest and walk like a chimpanzee. In the “Primates” section, both children and adults enjoyed stepping on special primate scale. The scale informed me that I weighed the same amount as a Chimp and concluded that the eleven year old girl that stepped on it before me weighed the same as a Baboon. My favourite part of the exhibit, however, was the display that mimicked Jane Goodall’s Gombe Jungle home. While sitting in the camp I was able to watch authentic video footage that Goodall took while researching chimps in Africa. As I both participated in the exhibit and observed other visitors’ responses, it was clear that both children and adults were equally captivated.

“Discovering Chimpanzees” has increased the amount of museum members and visitors, while also having a very positive effect on the museum staff’s morale. This was obvious by the friendly, enthusiastic, and helpful nature of the employees. One of the staff members who is in charge of museum fund raising explained that she used to have to call schools and recreational groups to try and convince them to book tours at the museum, but since the opening of “Discovering Chimpanzees” all of the schools and groups in the area have been calling them. Furthermore, the success of this exhibit has allowed for the Children’s Museum to line up a series of additional educational and exciting traveling exhibits. These include an upcoming and highly anticipated “A Celebration of Canada’s North: An Arctic Adventure” and “Dinosaurs Alive!”.

[1] Edward P. Alexander and Mary Alexander, Museums in Motion (New York, Altamira Press: 2008), 168

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Podcastic History?

My Digital History class is making a digital exhibit on the History of the Sky. My group in particular is making a display that will inform the public about the History of Comets. The idea is that a visitor will touch a button on a globe, which will then project the computer program Google Earth onto a large screen. This will display the precise location and description of where a famous Comet has been seen and the affect that the Comet had on History. My portion of the project so far has included making a Google Earth KMZ file, that works whenever someone clicks London, England, and shows a picture and brief description of the history of Halley’s Comet.

Today it was suggested to me that my group could look into making a Podcast to accompany our display. I must confess that until approximately an hour ago I knew very little about Podcasts, aside from the general idea that they are basically online radio shows that can be downloaded and listened to on an IPod. I have mentioned in previous posts how attached I am to my IPod, which has progressed to not only taking it with me everywhere, but also having a special IPod alarm clock that wakes me up each morning. So needless to say, I decided it was about time to become more informed, and I have started looking through what ITunes has to offer.

There are many Podcasts that grabbed my attention, and I have already become a subscriber to The Hour with George Stroumboulopoulos. The second I clicked on this Podcast I was greeted by The Long Tail, and was informed that listeners who liked The Hour also liked “BBC History Magazine”. I decided to try out the latest BBC History Magazine Podcast, and although I did not find it nearly as entertaining as The Hour, I immediately understood Podcasts’ potential.

I think that Podcasts could definitely be used to get the public engaged with history. I do not think it will be easy, but some creative thinking could allow for students and/or the public to listen to interesting historical accounts the same way that they currently listen to their favourite songs. I am not positive that a Podcast will work for this particular project, but regardless I think this is something I will continue to look into, because Podcasts could serve as a fantastic tool for the Public Historian.