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The Trials and Triumphs of Writing a History of Museum Education: Interpreting the Thank You Note

Posted by Kate Zankowicz
13 February 2013 - 1:02pm

As I mentioned in my last blog post, getting at what teachers were teaching in museums can be a tricky enterprise. I recently came across a packet of letters from students thanking Ella Martin for their tour of the Royal Ontario Museum in the early 1960s in the ROM archive. As a pedagogical exercise in letter-writing itself, the children’s letters are quite formal. However, between the formality of the “I hope we weren’t any trouble for you” or “I must close this letter” lines, students did comment meaningfully about their experiences. Because there exists little evidence of what museum education was like, as lived experience, these letters provide important glimpses of how and what students learned at the Royal Ontario Museum during the early 1960s.

Based on the student’s letters I can deduce that the tours were quite multisensory in nature. Many students commented on how they liked when Martin demonstrated the “piano that you put over a dish and played” from the Congo, or thanked her personally for “letting me hold the spear.”

In terms of how students understood the past, many declared that they were “ glad that we don’t have to use or wear things such as thoes [sic] anymore”. While it is unclear what the student is referring to, the students’ privileging of the present over the past is an apparent theme running through the letters. One student declared: “I liked the sculptures of Romen[sic] days very much—it shows how much better off we are with the foods we eat than the Romens[sic] were.”

Students’ comments also reveal how exhibits have changed over time: many students commented on how much they loved the models in the museum, particularly the model Roman home, a maquette that is no longer on display in the main galleries.

The letters also divulge some clues about how diverse cultures were discussed during school tours. One student commented on how he enjoyed “the tour about African natives...When we laughed at that costume I liked the way you told us not to laugh.”  While it is unclear whether students were encouraged to “act” as native stereotypes during the school tours, some students did comment on how much they enjoyed “the Indian Snake Dance.” One student on a school tour commented on how she was “glad that there were Indians in the glass parts because some of them demonstrated what they do.”

"Dressing up", particularly as stereotypes of First Peoples, was a reoccurring craft-based activity, often used in the project method. The ROM's Saturday Morning Club and Summer Club regularly featured children in hand- made costumes, as part of their hands-on pedagogy.  The ROM’s Division of Instruction published pieces about how teaching with objects in the museum could “destroy prejudice”, particularly by establishing ideas about universal human needs. At the same time, the museum was also a place where native peoples were positioned as existing in the past, within museum space.  Students commented on traditional ways of life in the present tense, suggesting that contemporary native life may not have been a focus on school tours. They also brought particular understandings of the past to museum lessons.  Then, as now, children brought their own narratives and made their own meanings in museums.

How do you deal with cultural prejudice in your history/museum lessons?

Photo: Original photo found in ROM archives, Elizabeth Clark pictured in Vertebrate Paleontology, no date.