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Backstage Pass to North Dakota History

This blog takes you behind the scenes of the State Historical Society of North Dakota. Get a glimpse at a day-in-the-life of the staff, volunteers, and partners who make it all possible. Discover what it takes to preserve North Dakota's natural and cultural history. We encourage dialogue, questions, and comments!

Rob Hanna's blog

Hands-on History: The Do’s and Don’ts

We’re starting a project, called Hands-on History, to make history more immersive and multisensory at our staffed state historic sites. We want to give visitors more opportunities to learn by doing historically accurate activities, like trying on unique historic clothing, playing games, or using period technology.

It’s funny, though. Year after year I see articles, books, and conference presenters urging us to offer more interactive learning, but precious little advice about how to do it. I have received a ton of training on how to give tours, research history, write exhibit panels . . . so why is there so little out there about hands-on experiences? This means that over the last decade or so, I’ve had to just try things and see what worked. Here’s a little summary of what I’ve learned:

Soon numerous state historic sites will have stereoscopes, a 19th-century 3-D viewer, with images from the State Archives.

1. Do start with research.
This is where the most interesting and historically accurate ideas come from.

2. Do make your objects as close to original as possible.
You want the closest replica of the historic object you can get, within the limits of durability, repairability, or replaceability.

3. Do be excited.
If you’re offering an experience you’re excited about, your visitors will be, too.

Two people shooting off foam rockets from PVC pipe launcher

At the Ronald Reagan Minuteman Missile State Historic Site, Addilyn Groven got to launch her own (non-nuclear) rocket.

4. Do connect your object to an important idea.
Ideally the experience helps people understand the significance of your historic site. Since the visitor should have new insights from the experience, we can ask thought-provoking questions. (Was it possible to write with your left hand using an inkwell and a quill pen? If you were a schoolteacher at the time, how would you teach your left-handed students how to write?)

It must be said, though, that sometimes it’s okay to just offer a fun, historically-accurate experience that makes people feel more at home at your site.

5. Don’t think of hands-on history as an add-on to your “more important work” of conversing about history.
This attitude often causes us to treat visitors who may seem less interested, such as children, as if they are less important than the visitor who is already engaged and asking lots of questions. We have to serve the needs of all our visitors.

Science toys are nothing new. In the 19th century, a zoetrope helped kids learn about optics and moving images.

6. Don’t just give visitors something to touch.
Maybe you’ve observed this strange tendency, but the minute you give people permission to touch something at a historic site, their desire to touch it goes way down. The real fun starts with doing something. And not just anything. Which leads me to . . .

7. Don’t give your visitors historic work to do.
If it wasn’t fun in the past, it isn’t fun now.

Two adults posing in old time clothing while a man takes their picture

It may seem like a cheesy photo op, but clothing illustrates a lot about cultural values, social roles, and the work different people had to do.

8. Don’t make assumptions about who will or won’t try an experience.
I googled “why I hate museums” once, just to see what I might learn. One reason came up in multiple articles and really surprised me: people hate it when all the fun experiences are just for kids.

9. Don’t waste too much effort on experiences you can only offer at special events.
You can provide far more experiences — ones that require lots of set-up and clean-up, or a guest expert, etc. — if you offer them as special events. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But you’ll reach far more people if you develop experiences that visitors can try every day.

A young girl plays with blocks

In the Attic Playroom at the Former Governors’ Mansion State Historic Site, kids can play with toys typical of the years 1901–1960, the same time period the room was used by several governors’ children.

10. Don’t always expect your visitors to initiate the experience.
There’s so much confusion these days about what you can and can’t touch and do in any given historic site or museum. Visitors may need some active encouragement to try out new activities.

11. Do help visitors succeed when trying a new skill.
Make sure you know how to accomplish the task yourself, and look for opportunities to improve the experience so visitors succeed in their attempts to try it.

Three kids roll hoops with sticks

Kids used old steel wagon tires and later wooden or cane hoops for a wide variety of games called hoop trundling. These hoops eventually evolved into the hula hoop.

12. Do understand that there can be risks.
I’ve actually seen more injuries, such as heat exhaustion and passing out, on tours than during hands-on history experiences. Still we have to design these experiences to be reasonably safe and sometimes guide visitors to perform activities a certain way.

13. Do be appropriate.
It would not be culturally appropriate for visitors to try experiences that one must earn the right to perform in the original culture or context. We won’t be offering visitors the chance to try on warbonnets or medals of honor. Likewise, it’s disrespectful and wrong to try to replicate traumatic experiences. And yet . . .

14. Don’t pass over important cultures or communities.
It takes time, effort, and engagement to learn how to represent a group fairly, accurately, and appropriately, but it’s also essential to telling a balanced story.

An adult man holds up a young girl while she helps assemble a tipi

Sophia, like countless young girls stretching back centuries in North Dakota, learned how to lace up a tipi with wooden pins.

There are so many great reasons to do hands-on history. It makes history more enjoyable. It’s more accessible to children, people with disabilities, people who don’t speak your language, and people who otherwise might not visit historic sites and museums. Visitors learn more by involving multiple senses (taste, feel, smell, sound, sight, texture, temperature, etc.). They remember more, too. They’re more likely to take pictures of their awesome experience and share them with their friends. It gives them a reason to visit in person rather than only learn online.

I’m excited to watch this area grow, especially right here in North Dakota. Some of our Hands-on History experiences are already available at staffed state historic sites around North Dakota, and we will be adding more and more as time goes by. We hope you come try them out!

Training State Historic Site Staff (and You!) as Certified Interpretive Guides

I’ve been leading (and loving) Certified Interpretive Guide (CIG) trainings for about six years now. When I started as a historic site manager this spring, I was thrilled to be asked to lead them for the State Historical Society as well. CIG, a four-day course designed by the National Association for Interpretation (NAI), is an enriching opportunity to learn, share, and develop ideas with other heritage interpreters.

What do I mean by heritage interpreters? You may also know them as docents, tour guides, rangers, or public historians. They’re the people who translate technical knowledge into inspiring informal education for kids, tourists, or your family from out of town. You might encounter an interpreter at a museum, local or national park, botanic garden, zoo, aquarium, online, or, of course, at a historic site.

I’m passionate about interpretive training like this for two reasons. First, our visitors get a better experience. Second, it shows that interpretation is not just a hobby, it’s a profession.

So what will participants learn? There’s a lot to it, but there are six central attributes of effective interpretation that we spell out as an acronym: POETRY.

Purposeful. Interpretation solves problems for an organization like the State Historical Society. When a historic site needs maintenance, when common visitor behaviors may threaten a historic resource, or when funds need to be raised, interpreters communicate the need. CIG training gives guidance on how to develop an objective for a given interpretive program and how to measure its success.

Window turn buttons

These window turn buttons from around the Former Governors’ Mansion were each installed at different times. Though seemingly insignificant, they help site staff interpret when different changes and remodels were made to the house. Photo credit: Johnathan Campbell

Organized. The invisible side of interpretation is the hours spent gaining technical knowledge. In the short time I’ve been here I’ve repeatedly been amazed by the incredible amounts of research our historic site staff do. They find the answers to seemingly impossible questions using plat maps, photographs, artifacts, unpublished texts, information from descendants, eyewitnesses, or even physically trying historic processes. But like a filmmaker with hundreds of hours of raw footage, the challenge is to figure out how to pare, sort, and organize a wealth of content into something the public can enjoy. In CIG, interpreters develop techniques to hone their content into one cohesive story.

Beads being added to string

Interpreters know that enjoyable learning is the most powerful. Photo credit Rob Hanna

Enjoyable. Written and spoken words are an incredibly efficient way to consolidate information (I’m using written words right now, after all!) But they don’t always work for young children, people who don’t speak the language, or people with certain disabilities. CIG trainees discuss and explore creative ways to communicate with smells, images, video, flavors, music, textures, and more. Very often we think of these as supplements to the written word, but in fact these “learning modalities” can sometimes communicate even more than the written word and live longer in the visitor’s memory. For instance, a person who reads about how to set up a tipi doesn’t know more about it than the children who set one up a few weeks ago at an event at Whitestone Hill.

Red sun over Oscar-Zero

Interpreters show how their resource fits into “the big picture.” Photo credit: Rob Branting

Thematic. Thematic interpretation ties the entire message to one “big idea.” Every state historic site we have has a “big idea”—the reason that place matters. Welk Homestead shows how an immigrant family achieved the American Dream. The Chateau de Mòres shows what happened when an aristocrat tried to make it in cattle country, one of the least aristocratic places on earth. Ronald Reagan Minuteman Missile shows how rival superpowers with the power to destroy the world made uneasy peace instead. Effective interpretation ties what the visitor is learning to that big idea. And the big idea ties to the purpose referenced above.

Relevant. We explore how to better understand our visitors and tailor their experiences to their needs. Over time, it becomes easy to adapt our interpretation to the average of every visitor we meet, when in fact each visitor is incredibly different. Our visitors include children, elders, international travelers, passionate researchers, guests at an on-site wedding, and descendants of people who lived or died at our sites. In CIG, we discuss and develop ways of learning more about our visitors early on. If we can do that, it’s usually possible to delight a visitor with knowledge or an experience they didn’t even know they wanted!

You. Recent research by Robert Powell and Marc Stern shows that the passion of the interpreter is likely the single biggest factor in interpretive success. This is one of the best things about CIG training. Guided discussion among a diverse group of interpreters, each with their own experience and point of view, sheds new light on ideas they thought they already knew and validates ideas they weren’t yet ready to try. Interpreters leave inspired to try these out.

I will also be tailoring the course content to some of the unique needs I’ve seen in the Northern Plains region. Because we have many smaller institutions and organizations where formal sit-down programs and scheduled tours are impractical, we’ll practice techniques for offering visitors spontaneous experiences that still achieve all six elements of the POETRY model. We’ll also discuss Northern Plains Native American educational traditions, because following those practices help to portray Native history and culture appropriately.

We are opening these trainings to the public as well. Anyone who practices some form of heritage interpretation may find this course of interest. It will soon be listed on NAI’s course calendar. Having multiple points of view in the room only makes the course better, so if this is for you, we would love to have you join us!