Making Museum A Kid-friendly Place

Cover Story


Four-year-old Kofi Whitehead had scarcely entered the dim museum room when something caused his eyes to light up with excitement.

"Look!" he yelled to his parents while pointing to a painting on a wall. "I see a ship!"

Images of the Henrietta Marie slave ship exhibition made the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture, which opened in June, come alive for the youngster from Baltimore.

Kofi's mother, Kaye, an advanced-placement social studies teacher at West Baltimore Middle School, wasn't about to let her son's curiosity go to waste.

"That's a slave ship that used to bring people from Africa and take them to America," said Kaye Whitehead as her husband, Johnnie, stood beside her, holding their 2-year-old son, Amir.

"And slavery is not a good thing," she added.

"Why is that not a good thing?" Kofi asked with a puzzled stare.

"What if you had to work for somebody else all your life and you can never make any money?" she asked.

"See how mommy and daddy are free? I can go to work. Daddy can go to work, you can run outside. Suppose someone said, 'You can only do what I tell you.' Would that be fun?"

The 4-year-old's eyes drooped as he shook his head. This moment was a throwback of sorts.

Kaye Whitehead taught the museum's African-American history curriculum in a pilot program to seventh- and eighth-graders and found that their interest piqued on such topics as the Brown vs. the Board of Education school-desegregation ruling and African-American female pioneers.

The museum's founders are hoping that such curiosity is contagious.

As the academic year for public schools convenes this month, museum officials will be anxious to see how the largest facility of its kind on the East Coast resonates with Maryland students who come on field trips eager to broaden their knowledge of topics learned in the classroom.

Those who have invested in the museum's success know that it must become a hit with young people -- from children like Kofi who are bright and attentive beyond their years to students of all ages who reserve their attention spans for Xboxes and Cartoon Network programming.

"One of the expressed purposes for the whole museum project was that it really speaks to children," said A.T. Stephens, the museum's director of education. "It had to have content and activities that were relevant and understandable for young people.

"We want to present something that would make youth say, 'I want to be this person,' or 'I want to be that person.' "

A big boost toward that goal has been the statewide African-American history curriculum that borrows from the museum's themes and materials.

Orchestrated by state school Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, the curriculum was taught in 90 public schools last year in grades three through eight, covering such elementary-school-level topics as black watermen on the Chesapeake Bay and middle-school-level topics as teaching values through fables.

Those topics and all others taught in the curriculum have their own unique place in the Lewis Museum.

Many teachers, like Whitehead, took the lesson plans home to their children. Her family relived them when they visited during the past two months.

Whitehead relayed many of the subjects covered in the museum to Kofi while the family drove to the museum, and during a tour that lasted about 90 minutes.

He remained engaged, pushing buttons that lit up and displayed answers to questions about the Underground Railroad, and raising brass-colored miniature doors that revealed answers to questions about the Henrietta Marie.

He was among several children who gravitated toward the many staples of eras past, from the brown-and-white photographs to the old-fashioned voting booths.

What's poignant about the Lewis Museum is that it encourages family time: Most families stay close together as they pass through each exhibit.

The younger family members listen closely as older members -- many of whom are versed on the topics covered -- act as virtual tour guides.

Among the challenges the museum faces is appealing to children of all ages.

While older youths enjoy history relayed to them in a story-telling fashion, those Kofi's age prefer a hands-on experience; they want to touch different textures, push bright buttons, watch objects pop up and sound off from out of nowhere.

It doesn't sit well with many youngsters that some of the museum's exhibits are behind glass or out of reach.

Yet other areas encourage child participation. Among them is a permanent exhibit featuring the oyster catchers of the Chesapeake Bay. It consists of a makeshift boat with imitation oyster-tong handles coming up from the floor of the boat.

"You get to see how strong you would need to be to manage to pull these things up from the sea bed," said Stephens.

In another exhibit, children get to try on pieces of attire from various jobs -- from a waterman's boots to a doctor's coat -- to see themselves in certain careers.

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