Teaching and Learning History - 030816

Public History

The Whaley House II

By Samantha M. Engel
Executive Director
The Whaley House
Flint, MI

In my last post you were introduced to the Whaley Historic House Museum of Flint, Michigan (http://www.whaleyhouse.com/) and the ways various departments at the University of Michigan-Flint have begun using the space as an educational tool. Today, though, I share with you the wide array of museum programs that we offer to the public.

The museum hosts regular tours of its first and second floors that illuminate the history of the house, the Whaley family, and the historical context in which they lived. Instead of a tour that places its site in a vacuum, frozen in time, we train our docents to include information about America’s Gilded Age and the larger world in which the Whaley family existed. We also try to emphasize the role of Mary Whaley in city life and spend as much time discussing the life of the maid as we are able; the field of history has been trying to incorporate the voices of those long kept silent and the Whaley House hopes to keep up with this trend. Additionally, discussions about issues like health, women’s rights, and income disparity allow people to connect problems and events from the present with the past.

Tours, however, bring in our smallest percentage of visitors. Since Flint is not a tourist destination, our market is largely the local community, which means that they won’t continue to come for the same tour time and again. Therefore, since I began as the Executive Director, I have focused on creating special events for area residents. We offer our History Happy Hour lecture series, which includes a series of talks by local specialists and the sale of beer and wine. Talks like Gilded-Age Cooking Demonstrations, “The Worst Jobs in American History,” and “The History of Beer from Pharaohs to Founders” by a university student, faculty member, and a local home brewing guild, respectively, have brought in large numbers of new visitors. We also host candlelight tours in October for our “House in Mourning” exhibit, and a Quilting Bee Workshop for which we partner with another local nonprofit, Flint Handmade. This program is a throwback to nineteenth century quilting bees that were put together as ways for women to be politically active in their communities. They would auction off quilts and donate the proceeds to charities or causes (most notably, abolition). When our group of quilters finishes their piece it will be auctioned off and the proceeds will benefit our two organizations. Our programs vary widely in intended audience and utilize a variety of techniques to bring history and heritage to our visitors.

At this time we are currently trying to develop new ways to make history accessible for Flint students. Due to funding issues faced by many schools in Flint, field trips to the museum are not always feasible. Furthermore, the size of the site severely limits the number of students we can have in the museum at one time. We currently have a field trip program in place that is aligned with the third and fourth grade social studies curriculum, which focuses on learning about the practice of history and the history of Michigan.  After listening to short lecture on the study of history, students are able to examine their own artifact from the house, take part in a tour, then reassess their initial conclusions about the pieces. The field trip also includes a timeline activity about the Whaley family and a take-home assessment worksheet teachers can use with their students. Currently we are developing ways to both remotely connect with students with videos or podcasts and ways that we can bring artifacts to the schools. This can bring the history of the house and the lessons it can teach to children who are unable to visit the location.

We have formed a relationship with local scout troops, though. The house lends itself to a variety of badge work, many of which focuses on learning the way people lived in the past. They have played parlor games, hosted tea parties, and examined the pieces in the house that differ from things they encounter in their own home. Children are often in awe of the space, whether it’s the size of the house, the ice box, or the pull chain toilet.
I always chuckle when kids ask me if I live in the house, but the truth is that this question tells me the kids have made the connection between their own home and the Whaley House. It’s not just a museum, but a space in which people lived. It was an active and dynamic space and children can see that, sometimes easier than adults. As long as we can continue to use the space creatively and not keep everything just out of reach behind velvet ropes, children will be able to envision others using the space and that is the greatest lesson the house holds; it is a giant artifact highlighting a way of life we (almost) no longer recognize.

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