An Exploration of Learning in A Living History Museum: Family Groups, Costumed Interpreters, their Interactions, and the Making of Meaning

Craig, Johanna Margot Bromberg, Curry School of Education, University of Virginia
Bunch, Johan, Curry School of Education, University of Virginia
Heinecke, Walter, Curry School of Education, University of Virginia

Family groups are a predominant museum-going demographic; an intact social group, within which members' actions and interactions of museum learning are socially and culturally constructed. Living history museums are the paramount of free-choice learning environments, full of possible avenues for exploration. The typical exhibits often contain little or no explanatory labeling, and a museum visitor's experience with objects and places becomes mediated through costumed interpreters instead of text. Utilizing a qualitative approach, this research was guided by questions concerning the learning experience of family groups in a living history museum. Specifically of interest were interactions with costumed interpreters, the role of identity and prior knowledge in living history museum learning, and the beliefs of both family groups and costumed interpreters in regard to museum learning. The study took place at a mediumsized outdoor history museum in Central Virginia. Six family groups, seven historical interpreters, and an upper level museum administrator participated. Data collection included observations of family visits, semi-structured interviews before, immediately after, and then 1-2 months after their visit, as well as observations, in-depth interviews, and short reflective chats with the costumed interpreters. Relevant documents were collected including museum information, educational programming materials, and photos taken by visiting children. Using Erickson's (1986) model of analytic induction, eight assertions were produced to explore the experience in a living history museum. These findings address museum learning on the organizational, interpreter, family, and individual levels. The organizational intent of the museum to educate the public, and the beliefs that costumed interpreters are educators who must balance education and entertainment as they enact the museum's curriculum, influence the interactions between the interpreters and family members. Family members identify the museum as an opportunity to experience history up close, while individuals establish personal connections to the museum through their prior knowledge, family history, and imaginative play. Individual learning outcomes for the museum visits vary considerably, as the museum's intentions for learning are transformed through the successive interpretations of the costumed interpreters, the family group as a whole, and the prior knowledge and identity of the individual family members.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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