A Hands-on vs. Hands-off Approach

Scavenger Hunt at the American Museum of History in Washington D.C.

My wife and I are visiting Washington D.C. this week for my first visit in over 20 years – long overdue.  We are staying a quick metro ride from the Mall where the suite of Smithsonian Institution museums are located.  Even before entering the first venue we recognized that we would not be able to “do” all the museums in DC on this 5 day visit and vowed to come back before another 20 years passed.

Monday, our first stop was the American History Museum – which turned out to be our only stop for the day as well.  I got stuck for six hours on the 3rd Floor “Price of Freedom” exhibit that traces the wars of the United States from the 1700s to the present day.  As a child of the 60-70s, I was transfixed with a presentation on the military that had seemed so black and white during the Vietnam War period of my youth.  One takeaway from the exhibit is that the United States has pretty much either always been at war, been preparing for war, or in the aftermath of war – that war is more the norm for the United States than is peace.  Another takeaway was seeing the human face of war.  The exhibit reminded me of a line I read from Studs Terkel’s The Good War when he interviewed a GI from WWII who noted the shock that the German soldiers they encountered looked just like them.

Students in my Museum Practices seminar at the University of Memphis would have been amused that I spent the six hours reading all the text panels, and pushing the few buttons available to watch the occasional video or slide show presentation in the exhibit.  The students often view a museum as a one-time experience they need to take in during a single visit.  My perspective is more a take what you like and come back for another visit to continue the experience.

There was something else about the American History Museum that struck me – the experience is, for the most part, very hands-off.  Any notion of a “participatory” experience in the contemporary use of the term is pretty much nonexistent at the American History Museum.

And there are busload after busloads of youth scattered throughout all three floors of the museum on senior field trips from throughout the U.S. and abroad.  The scavenger hunt experience (pictured above) seemed a popular form of engagement for the youth.  I was impressed as well with the occasional student seen giving spontaneous presentations on exhibits to their classmates.  And their were lots of impatient youth running about and exhausted adults.  I saw no docent led tours, or any of the other supplementary offerings to enhance the visitor experience.

Nina Simon has discussed shades of this topic over the years in her Museum 2.0 blog such as here.

For me, the American History Museum experience worked.  Seemingly, for many others, this traditional hands-off (but perhaps minds-on) museum approach worked as well, including among the youth.  There is little apparent contributory, collaborative, or co-creative anything with the visitor experience at the American History Museum.  But the place is packed.  Does this work because it is the Smithsonian American History Museum and can get away with treating the visitor more as spectator?  Or should the Smithsonian be one type of experience and other museums another?

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2 thoughts on “A Hands-on vs. Hands-off Approach”

  1. Having spent the past year teaching science to 82 fifth graders, I’ve found myself surprised a number of times when students were attracted to hands-off approaches that seem to not correspond with what today’s educators would regard as “best practices.” Obviously learners come in all shapes and sizes, and just as hands-off approaches don’t work for everyone, neither do hands-on approaches. What surprised me so much, however, was that the same individual might respond better to hands-on activities in one setting and hands-off activities in another! When I observed my own students at a couple of art and history museum exhibits, it was interesting to see who chose what type of information to explore and how they came away with very different experiences based on those choices. While it requires more work from the presenter (teacher, museum educator, etc.), combining approaches and practices also presents a challenge that I find very stimulating.

    I’d be curious to know how you felt at other museums – could it be that the content at the American History Museum leant itself more toward a spectator approach than, say, the information at the Air and Space Museum?

    Theresa McReynolds Shebalin

    1. Theresa,

      Thanks for your very thoughtful comments. Great points. You are quite right that a combination of approaches, based on specific situations, makes for a well-rounded experience. This is certainly supported by the vast majority of at least “traditional” museum visitors who wish to have a spectator experience. And there certainly is a difference between a hands-on tactile experience and one that is truly participatory in terms of contributing to the museum content. I am consistently perplexed that at our small museum, the diorama models of a prehistoric Mississippian village seems to get comparable attention to our very hands-on archaeological laboratory exhibit.

      I had started to title this blog post “The Tyranny of the Participatory Paradigm” after the American History Museum experience. But you are right – at both the Natural History Museum visit yesterday and at Air and Space today, the hands-on exhibits were more numerous – akin to what my experiences were at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry I experienced over 40 years ago. And there were considerably more school groups at these two museums than at the American History – not certain if that is a chicken or the egg story though.

      As you note, the experience has simply made me more mindful of the need for balance in our approach to engaging the public in all aspects of archaeology and museum work.

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