My Time at the Frontier Culture Museum of Virginia

As the semester is now over, I think it is time to reflect on some of the things I have learned and how I can apply these skills in the future. One of the classes I took was “Introduction to Interpretation and Museum Education”. Having a background in interpretation with my job at Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historical Park, I was interested to see what this class had to offer.

We covered different interpretative theories from Tilden, to Cable and Beck and delved into how to create a school program at a museum designed around Virginia’s Standards of Learning. (S.O.L’s). One of the most effective aspects of the class was the various guest speakers. Panels of two to four professionals came into the classroom and talked to us about their experiences in the field of interpretation. There was a panel made up of Education Directors, experts in Native American Interpretation and professionals who interpret slavery. The latter, being the most effective.

The slavery panel made was made up of three young African-Americans. One of them was my friend and colleague Emmanuel Dabney, (check out his blog here). This panel talked about the controversies with interpreting slavery. Subjects such as, “Slavery interpretation sounds better coming from an African-American” and “Oh, you are black, you must be an expert in the intricate history of American slavery”. This panel provided the class with first hand experiences with some of the foremost interpreters in American Slavery.

One of the most effective aspects of the class was the opportunity to volunteer some our time at the Frontier Culture Museum. Our professor is the head costumer at the museum and utilized her position at the museum to allow the class to help out with school groups. If you are not familiar with the Frontier Culture Museum of Virginia, I encourage you to visit. For their website click here.The museum is designed to show the progression of life in the Shenandoah Valley from the time settlers settled to valley through the antebellum period in the 1850’s. However, there is also a portion of the museum dedicated to the “Old World”. Here, there are exhibits on old world England, Germany, Ireland and Africa. These are designed to show the lives of families in the Old World and what motivated them to travel to the Valley of Virginia. A visitor can travel from the “Old World” to the “New World” and follow the steps of families as they created a life in the Shenandoah Valley.

Each student in the class was assigned to a specific exhibit. I was assigned to the 1740’s Settlement cabin. This exhibit shows what life was like during the first years settlers lived in the Valley. The first time I volunteered, I was orientated to the site and learned about how the interpreters interpret the site. More importantly, how the site handles the numerous school groups that travel the museum on a daily basis. The interpreters treat this site like their own home. They clean the inside of the cabin, they plant food during the summer and harvest it in the fall, and all the tools they need are made by hand. This was impressive.

1740's Settlement Cabin

1740’s Settlement Cabin

Interpretative panel at the 1740's cabin

Interpretative panel at the 1740’s cabin

The interpretation done here is very different to the interpretation I was used to. At Cedar Creek and Belle Grove NHP, we focus a lot on the Civil War and the Battle of Cedar Creek. During my interpretation, I talk about “big” ideas. The socio-economic causes of the Civil War and slavery, why men decided to fight in the war, major campaigns that cover hundreds of miles and thousands of men and of course the Battle of Cedar Creek. Some of these ideas may seem lofty to the visitors and hard for them to relate to. But at the settlement cabin, the visitor is right smack in front of something tangible to them. Visitors will ask very practical questions. How and where did they sleep? What did people eat? How did the children work on the farm? The interpreters use these questions to shape their interpretation of the site at a given time.

When interpreting at Cedar Creek I often have to explain why things happened in a certain way and how this lead to specific events unfolding. At the Frontier Culture Museum, they often try to answer the question of how things happened and how people lived. I guess the big difference is simply that the museum broadly interprets, “Daily Life”. This daily life might be Virginia in the 1820’s or daily life in Ireland. One of the most effective parts of this interpretation is the fact the interpreters are costumed.  A family may visit the site with no interest in 1740’s Virginia, but they may be interested in the clothing and how it was made, its uses etc.

Myself costumed and interpreting as a 1850's Virginian

Myself costumed as a 1850’s Virginian. Our final exam for the class consisted of students interpreting during a special event at the museum

Since Cedar Creek is still a fairly new National Park, we do not have school designed programming. This being interpretation designed to handle school groups and field trips based off of certain grade level S.O.L’s. Seeing this done and helping guide school groups at the Frontier Culture Museum was an eye opening experience. Getting students to participate in hands on activities is crucial. At the settlement cabin we let students use a cross cut saw and supervised them cutting a portion of wood off of a log. They loved it.

In the future, I hope Cedar Creek and Belle Grove NHP can develop school programming designed for school groups. This would be very effective in many ways. First, this would help get more people at our lesser known park. We are a historical park, not just a battlefield park. So the possibilities are almost endless. We can cover and interpret everything from Native American history in the Valley, early white settlement, the rise of commercial agriculture in the Antebellum south and of course the Civil War. This is a catch all for almost all elementary school history classes. Secondly, by bringing in schools, the park is networking with younger children, which is our future. Children may go home, tell their parents about how much they liked visiting the park and tell their parents to take them again. Also, it is introducing children to National Parks and what they stand for, maybe encouraging them to visit other parks in the country.

I hope in the future I will have the opportunity to volunteer at the Frontier Culture Museum again. The staff is highly knowledge and passionate on their respective subjects. But if I do not, I have taken away numerous skills I hope to apply to my personal interpretation. The importance of school groups to a museum, Virginia’s Standards of Learning, and how to conduct a school program with children. All positive experiences for a young interpreter like myself.

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