A "Handy House" for Student Consultants: Teaching History in a Local House Museum

April 10, 2014
The Cadman-White-Handy House, Westport, Massachusetts.

The Cadman-White-Handy House, Westport, Massachusetts.

Credit: Photograph courtesy of the Westport Historical Society

The Westport (Massachusetts) Historical Society asked for our help with their newly acquired 1710 Cadman-White-Handy House. How might they use it as “a cultural hub around which the community can reconnect to its heritage”?

Students in the “Shrine, House, or Home: Rethinking the House Museum Paradigm” course took on the challenge. Molly Kerker, a student in the Public Humanities MA program, was a member of that class. I asked her about this experience.

What was the most challenging aspect of coming up with a plan to interpret the Handy House?

The Cadman-White-Handy House project was an interesting challenge. For one, unlike traditional house museums, the Handy House doesn’t contain furniture or other objects for display. In essence, we were tasked to work with an empty house.

Tell me about the process the class followed.

We met with the director of the Westport Historical Society and toured the Handy House with her. We read architectural and archaeological surveys about the house, and two books that examined similar towns during the same time period. We also spent a lot of time in class brainstorming stories and themes.

Although we were able to weave the history of the house into two thematic concepts (“Community” and “Continuity and Change”), we struggled to determine how to portray these themes in the Handy House in an engaging, affordable way. We considered tools and techniques such as soundscapes, audio tours, models, display panels, interactive timelines, and video projections.

How was the Westport Historical Society involved in the process?

We conducted a workshop for its staff and members, presenting our preliminary themes and interpretive methods. It became clear that a third-grade curriculum—rather than an exhibit or an interpretation plan—would be a more useful contribution.

And so we switched gears. We kept the core themes of community and change intact, and created two curriculum options that fulfilled Common Core and Massachusetts state standards. Along with the curriculum, we presented the Historical Society with tools for implementation: artifacts for a mock archaeological dig, games, and activities.

What did you learn from this experience?

For the project, we conceived of ourselves as a consulting firm, with the Westport Historical Society as the client. This structure was very beneficial. It was a useful exercise to create mock-ups, present to stakeholders, and adjust our work to accommodate the client's needs. This project also pressed me to think creatively about how to engage various audiences on a limited budget – from our initial plans to display information to broader publics, to a hands-on curriculum geared towards young students. Since local third-graders will certainly be visiting the Cadman-White-Handy House in the future, our class's project is also useful to the Westport Historical Society.

The Westport Historical Society plans to begin implementing the curriculum during their 2014 summer camp for children.












The students in “Shrine, House, or Home” organized a planning workshop and a final presentation with the staff and members of the Westport Historical Society. From left to right: Caleb Williams, Daniel Mellynchuk, Margaret Hanson, Katherine Boorstein, Elon Cook, and Molly Kerker.

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