Thursday, July 18, 2013

25 Students Visit the Mashantucket Pequot Museum

The MashantucketPequot Museum, in Mashantucket, CT, was the first of four field trips with the students this summer.  Our field trip goals include:

  • Observing which exhibits the students use, for how long and what their experience looks like.
  • Asking the students to write in journals about their experiences while in the museum and addressing specific questions.
  •  Providing the students with examples of exhibits for them to adopt, push off of, or think about when they are asked to consider what we might do at the Hempsted House.
  •  Seeing how the students interact socially within the exhibits – for example when left without direction, do they go through as a group? A few at a time? Individually?
  • Ideally, identifying what characteristics of exhibits the students are drawn to

The students arrived after a long school bus ride. Entering the Museum, the students received a brief introduction from a Pequot Museum staff member. Many of the students had been to the Museum on school field trips. The introduction was short, well done, and included information directly relevant to the students’ project.  The staff member addressed the plight and behavior of enslaved Pequots after the Pequot War. Many Pequots enslaved on colonial manors walked away and joined other local Native American groups.

Four days later, when asked what their least favorite part of the Pequot Museum visit was, the students cited the staff introduction. I admit that the staff person had done this introduction at my request. I had hoped the students would see a connection and think about the differences between Adam Jackson’s enslavement and the Pequot enslavement at the same time period.  Instead, they perceived it as a lecture.

After the introduction, students could explore the Museum freely. At first we stayed together, but this quickly broke down as different groups of students found different exhibits more or less engaging.  Students got together in groups of two to five, in basically two age categories; 11 to 14 and 15 to 17. The students understood we were there for the day, and everyone took their time. 

Much of the Museum is taken up with exceptional life-sized dioramas of the ice age, a 6,000 year old hunt, nature of the region and a series of vignettes taking place in a Pequot village.  Off of these spaces there are a number of small theaters with rotating shows and smaller gallery. The Museum contains an introductory space with stories from today, a wonderful object theater that documents the tribe’s history from 1930 or so onward and a temporary show, “Ramp It Up! Skateboard Culture in Native America,” a show aimed squarely at our demographic.

Here is how the students interacted, and what they wrote about at the end of the day:

Ramp It Up!:
Only about half the students viewed this exhibit, but of those that did, a good number enjoyed the show, and even read the labels. The skateboard decks were behind glass, and one student reached behind and touched a few of them before the other students told him to stop. All agreed that there should be some you could touch. There was a long loop of video running – but without added information or a way to control the video the students quickly lost interest.

The Ice Age:
A 2 foot tall model of a glacier with a 4” bronze model of the Museum at the bottom quickly conveyed the thickness of ice that covered the area 11,000 years ago in the last ice age. They got it and liked it. Next to this was a computer interactive that some of the students tried and promptly gave up on. Its design made little sense to them – and they were not sure what the interactive was attempting to convey.
Two life sized models of mega fauna looked great and many of the students were drawn to the numerous animals throughout. They did not read labels, but did understand – these animals lived here a long time ago.

The Hunt:
This life sized diorama of a caribou hunt with multiple vignettes fascinated the students. The computer terminals here and the rail labels provided added information – but not the information the students were looking for in a way that they could access.

The Pequot Village:
The Village takes up a large part of the Museum. It incorporates about 30 life sized vignettes of Pequot village life. Few institutions could afford or would be willing to commit the needed space to an impressive installation like this. Interpretation for the Village relies on user operated audio guides. Visitors type in numbers, imbedded in the floor, into their audio guide and hear a piece about the scene in front of them. The students were having fun exploring the museum in small social groups up to this point. Listening to audio pieces often gets in the way of social interaction, so I thought that the students might not use this technology very much, maybe a few times here and there.  I was wrong. Almost all of the younger students listened to a large number of the audio pieces, though the older ones did not listen to as many.

The pieces themselves are very short and focused. After each one there is often a reference to added related topics that the user can access. One student decided that he had to hear every single one. This took a long time, but he was determined.

Off of the Village there are few galleries and shorter video presentations. Most of this was of little interest to the students, save one element. A Pequot language interactive gave students the ability to hear their name in the Pequot language as well as other words. This interactive came up a lot in post visit conversations.

The Witness – a 30 minute film:
This dramatization of events surrounding the Pequot War engaged all of the students, and many commented on how sad the film was.

What can we learn from the Writer Block students’ first museum visit? Here are my preliminary takeaways –

  • Choice - The students responded to choice and the ability to choose their own experience. Every time that the students could not exercise choice they lost interest and moved on. A few of students commented that they had a much better time exploring the Museum than their last visit; when they had received a guided tour with their school group.
  • Relevance – Just like the rest of us the students needed a way to prioritize what they should look at. In competing stories of tool making and family life, family life wins hands down because it is easily relatable.
  • Accessibility - Like choice, the ability to find information that they wanted to know determined the success of exhibits.

We will see if these observations hold for the other museum visits. The Mashantucket Pequot Museum has a lot of wonderful exhibits, but it does not have a lot of hands on interactives competing for attention. How would more hands on interactives have altered the students’ experience? 

Robert Kiihne of RK Exhibits will be participating in the teen audience research this summer and will draft the exhibitions component of the interpretive plan in the fall.

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