Activating Science in Living History Museums

In a Sunday morning session, history museum interpreters and science museum exhibit developers and evaluators discussed Create.Connect, a new NSF-funded science/history partnership that has been implemented at Conner Prairie Interactive History Park in Fishers, Indiana. The project blends history and STEM in living history museums in a way that stays true to the museums’ history mission while providing integrated, high quality STEM experiences. By integrating STEM into these settings, the project aims to engage people who may not think of themselves as science and engineering people.

STEM activities at Conner Prairie are story driven and meant to make personal connections with guests. Criteria for story selection include:

  • Can we identify people or persons who might make the story more relatable for our guests?
  • Does it have an emotional “hook”? Is it relevant to our guests’ everyday lives?
  • Can we support the story with historical objects, photos, or other media?
  • Was there a scientific or technological breakthrough or turning point that impacted people’s lives?
  • Is there a sense of the progression of technology that would allow guests to see how historical technologies relate to those we use today?

One successful activity is based on Boone County, Indiana’s Rural Electrification project in 1936. In the exhibit, visitors can learn how electricity changed farmers’ lifestyles and work routines. Historic objects, including an electric refrigerator and waffle iron from that era, support the narrative. Visitors then can build their own circuits with wires, switches, and LEDs.

Facilitation has similarly focused on making connections. Story-building with guests includes powerful details, focuses on building a world together (characters have something to do and something for the guest to do), and includes compelling objects, such as hand-blown Edison light bulbs.

Evaluations, conducted by the Science Museum of Minnesota, show that visitors like the STEM activities and feel that they fit well in the history museum. They’ve also shown that greater facilitation results in longer stays.