Behind the Scenes: Museum Footnotes
A Model for Understanding How Museums Interpret the Past
The Fairfield Museum and History Center has served as the site for this innovative project in collaboration between faculty, students and staff at the University of Connecticut, Neag School of Education.
The new exhibition Creating Community: Exploring 375 Years of Our Past presented the opportunity to add an additional layer of information by adding “footnotes.” Each footnote has a QR code that you can scan with your phone. If you don’t have a smartphone, copies are available at the front desk. The footnotes encourage visitors to think critically about how the past is created and presented by museums. Visitors will discover why a particular object was chosen, how visitor experiences were designed, and how issues such as finances, space, staff expertise, and the needs of visitors influenced all aspects of the exhibit.
In 2014, the QR codes were tested and assessed by UCONN pre-service students and graduates who are currently teaching in Connecticut. In spring 2014 students participated in field trips to the Fairfield Museum in a half-day program incorporating Behind the Scenes with companion activities, such as Primary Source Workshops. The footnotes are designed to be flexible and can also be used as a pre or post activity for Fairfield Museum field trips.
“A wonderful experience!” ~ 7th Grade Teacher, Ridgefield
“It’s fun to interact in cool ways in exhibits” ~ 7th Grade Student
About the Behind the Scenes
Providing educational opportunities for students at museums is important because museums will serve as centers of learning throughout students’ adult lives and because museums are often perceived as objective and authoritative despite their subjective interpretation of the past. However, teaching history with museums is hampered by a lack of transparency or “footnotes.”
Museum staff need to find innovative ways for exhibits to become more transparent for student visitors. Providing “footnotes” for exhibits can promote trustworthiness and further develop students’ historical thinking skills. Museums are like any source of historical knowledge. The story of the past on which they focus is influenced by many factors including subjective decisions by staff, internal and external social/political pressures, and finances. Scholars, educators, and museum staff have all sounded the call to create museum experiences in which visitors play a more active role in their learning. Tracing the past in museums is a fantastic way to invite visitors to be active.
The footnotes promote students’ ability to:
1) decipher the intended narrative of the museum;
2) explore how the past is constructed;
3) evaluate the trustworthiness of the evidence presented; and,
4) ask insightful questions.
Museums can be powerful, engaging, and unique resources for learning about the past, but student visitors deserve transparency that helps to foster their historical knowledge and lifelong skills and that promotes thoughtful, engaged citizens. Providing “footnotes” at museums supports evaluating evidence, critical thinking, inquiry, questioning narratives and sources and other core goals of history education.
7th Grade Class, East Ridge Middle School, Ridgefield, CT
8th Grade Class, The Unquowa School, Fairfield, CT
8th Grade Gifted & Talented Students, Fairfield, CT