At the Intersection of Libraries and Museums

For librarians promoting information literacy and the evaluation of resources, museums—however unconventional—are fertile grounds for incorporating primary sources in lessons and activities.

  Holzweiss and her students getting ready to explore their

Holzweiss and her students getting ready to explore their "footlocker."

Libraries and museums…what a perfect combination! Both are established to educate patrons with curated resources.

According to the Institute of Museum and Library Services, there are 123,000 libraries and 35,000 museums in the United States. Access to authentic documents and artifacts can transform lessons into rich, engaging learning experiences for students of all ages. Presenting history, science, art, music, and other subjects through immediate contact with objects that they can touch helps students develop emotional connections to learning. Facts and figures become tangible when we understand the human stories in our history. Seeing Susan B. Anthony’s alligator purse, standing in the cellar of Edgar Allan Poe’s home, and touching the inner framework of the Statue of Liberty are indelible moments that I will never forget, even if the dates in history and specific lines of poetry escape my mind.

Who could forget show-and-tell day in kindergarten? That simple exercise supports storytelling, presentation, listening, and questioning techniques. Field trips to museums and cultural arts presentations, though often cut from school budgets when funds get tight, are integral to personal development, empathy, and the appreciation of creative expression. For librarians promoting information literacy and evaluation of resources, these places are fertile grounds for incorporating primary sources in lessons and activities.

Visiting your local museum

One of Holzweiss's students makes a friend at Beaverwood Farm.

One of Holzweiss's students makes a friend
at BeaverWood Farm in Swan Lake, NY.

The best, albeit most expensive, way to enjoy all that cultural institutions have to offer is to visit it, of course. Schools in metropolitan areas are fortunate because of their proximity to art galleries, planetariums, botanical gardens, children’s museums, and even aquariums and zoos. Many places have group rates and special prices for schools, while some even have free visiting times. However, sometimes a similar learning experience can be found in your own backyard. Consider your local historical society, newspaper plant, factory, pet store, and even supermarket.

Two field trips that my students enjoyed were to a friend’s farm in upstate New York and to an “automotive teaching museum.” Our students, from a diverse suburban district, were as excited to ride a horse and milk a cow as they were to see an original DeLorean from the ”Back to the Future” franchise.

Once you arrive, how can you maximize your visit? This past summer, I brought my three young children to the Cradle of Aviation Museum in Garden City, NY. I can appreciate seeing Charles Lindbergh’s first plane, the first postcard delivered by airmail, and aeronautical toys from my childhood. With iPads in their hands, the students explored the exhibitions through an impromptu scavenger hunt to discover propellers, jet engines, historical maps, and newspaper clippings.

What did they do with those pictures when we came home? They made videos using ChatterPix and Animoto apps.

Older children can use photos as backgrounds in green screen movies with the Do Ink app.

What did I do with my pictures? I created a Google album and shared them with teachers to make history of flight-themed Breakout EDU games.

Holzweiss's class enjoys a demo from an expert at the Autoseum on Long Island.

Holzweiss's class enjoys a demo from an expert at the Autoseum on Long Island.

Bring the museum to your school

If you can’t take your students to a museum, there are a variety of ways for you to bring the experience to them.

While visiting one on your own, imagine yourself as a tour guide for your students, taking pictures and videos to share with them. Using a 3-D imaging app, you can take pictures that they can view in Google Cardboard for a virtual reality experience. Stop by the gift shop for books, postcards, kits, and toys related to the museum. Don’t forget to ask for multiple copies of free brochures, flyers, maps, and guides.

Attend any professional development seminars and classes the institution may offer for additional resources and photo opportunities. Museum websites are also rich in information. For instance, the Anne Frank Museum Amsterdam has an interactive website that includes images and videos. Download educator and student guides for lesson ideas, hands-on activities, and worksheets.

Some institutes have virtual field trip and video conferencing programs. With Google Hangouts and Skype, you might also be able to connect with artists, scientists, and authors. Or, you might even be fortunate enough to have a curator or a representative from a nearby museum visit your school.

Holocaust survivors visit schools on Long Island to tell their stories through an outreach program of the Holocaust Memorial & Tolerance Center of Nassau County. Consider participating in the Take a Veteran to School Day program by HISTORY to acknowledge the sacrifices of your local heroes, while experiencing their stories firsthand.

Another worthwhile way of bringing an institution to your class is the Operation Footlocker program, through the National WWII Museum in New Orleans. For $75, they will send you a trunk filled with 15 authentic artifacts from World War II and a prepaid return shipping label. For an entire week your classes may examine (with white cotton gloves, à la Nicolas Cage in National Treasure) fascinating relics such as ration books, dog tags, and sand from the beaches of Normandy and Iwo Jima. Our footlocker included a cardboard license plate and a pair of U.S. Army-issued boxer shorts! A teacher’s manual that describes each object is included.

What’s old is new again

With the growing interest in manufacturing, “autopsies” and “dissections” of appliances are giving new life to old objects. Through taking unwanted appliances apart, students can learn about the mechanisms that make things work.

Visit garage and estate sales, browse through Craigslist ads, and walk the aisles of Goodwill and other thrift stores to find VCRs, sewing machines, film projectors, and toys. A display of these items will be sure to attract your curious students. A rusting typewriter and a cassette player are popular among my students, and a vintage camera transforms a lesson about turn of the century technological inventions into a teachable moment. There are enough places where artifacts are kept pristine under glass. Our library collection is a “Please Touch” exhibition for all to explore with wonder.

Denny Daniel and his traveling Museum of Interesting Things exhibit. Photo by Norman Blake

Denny Daniel and his traveling Museum of Interesting Things exhibit. Photo by Norman Blake

Recently I had the pleasure of meeting Denny Daniel, curator and exhibitor of the Museum of Interesting Things, a demonstration of vintage toys, technology, and ephemera that travels to schools and events. He was kind enough to lend us a suitcase full of artifacts for our Students of Long Island Maker Expo.

With a ballot from Lincoln’s election in his wallet and a piece of a World War II enigma machine in his pocket, he acquires items from antique shops, Internet auctions, and flea markets.

“Many donations are from sweet people who wanted their family heirlooms to teach kids forever. Sometimes my neighbors will leave things at my door for the museum collection,” says Daniel. His organization’s mission is to teach kids to be curious about the world around them and, therefore, to tinker. It is another resource for bringing the “museum” directly to your students. Daniel visits libraries as well as school, and he found his first presentation at one to be an enlightening experience. “Through the media, we are told that the digital revolution has made libraries obsolete. Because of this, I was expecting a few senior citizens,” admits Daniels. “But there were more people in that library than I had ever presented to in all my life! Nine years later I have visited dozens of libraries, and have seen the same thing. I also saw that libraries have incredible programming, from lectures to lessons to movies and more. Libraries today are the incubator, educator, babysitter, and almost the parents to the next generation. I realize now that libraries are more important today than they ever were before.”

Kristina Holzweiss is the school library media specialist at Bay Shore (NY) Middle School and SLJ's 2015 School Librarian of the Year. 

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