Social Studies: Museums and History in the Classroom

Submitted by James Elish

History can be relevant, museums can be alive for students. 

In this story, James Elish talks about the power of engaging with local museums to develop students to be critical historiographers, or critical framers and interrogators of the histories around them. 

In the past three years, I have engaged with two Philadelphia area museums - Eastern State Penitentiary and the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology - in developing critical museum curricula.  Students have engaged in projects critiquing extant museum galleries and building their own examples.  Students have engaged with themes of appropriation, narrative power, colonial fetishization, and culturally sensitive display.  

In any given history curriculum, most museum field trips are to historical sites and anthropological museums.  These museums harbor complicated historical legacies - often resting on collections built on principles of colonialism.  Instead of simply viewing the artifacts within these museums, students are better served by critiquing the museums themselves.  Students should engage with museums by analyzing the particular narratives that the museums themselves build.  By studying the history and choices of the museum itself, students can engage in any of a number of projects that make historiographical thought urgently relevant.

Instead of simply viewing the artifacts within these museums, students are better served by critiquing the museums themselves.  

These projects have been cited by countless students as the most important steps in their historical learning.  My suggestion to educators is to use museums in your area, great or small.  In my experience, museum educators are searching for ways to bring in local students with greater regularity.  Many museums, much like history as a subject, are fighting against waning interest - particularly amongst young people.  Often museums have outstanding education specialists eager to develop curricula that are critical of the role of the museum itself - use these partnerships to build your curricular backdoor into historiographical thought.  History can be relevant, museums can be alive - we need to teach criticism instead of observation!

James Elish could not be happier teaching teenagers history and economics at Science Leadership Academy at Beeber (SLA@B) in West Philadelphia; a project-based, inquiry driven public high school.  After a stint as a financial consultant in Chicago, James attended the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education teacher education program and has been in Philly ever since.  The incredibly creative students of SLA@B continue to inspire and push his practice on a daily basis.  James loves nothing more than collaborating with the non-profit and museum educators of Philadelphia in creating culturally relevant curriculum.  When not teaching, James can usually be found on his bike, at home by the stove, or on the banks of the Schuykill with a book and a soccer ball.