Closer Readings Commentary

Eight Tips for Making the Most of a Museum Field Trip

For seasoned teachers as well as the newly minted—whether elementary or secondary—here are some ways you can enrich visits to museums by structuring them in the same way as for your classroom activities.

  • Match content with grade level and interest;
  • Choose a manageable bite of an institution’s collection;
  • Create a diversity of sensory engagements.

A little attention given in advance to how to shape the students’ visit will pay off immeasurably in what they take away from their time viewing an institution’s collections.

The following tips are offered in the spirit of enhancing the museum field trip for students by drawing on my own teacher training and, much later, observations of field trips in progress.

1. Choose part of a collection and hone in on it.

Eyes tend to glaze over after moving from one display case to another or from one gallery to another. Stay fresh, and draw students’ attention to an artifact or painting that exemplifies topics covered in class.

Suggested example for a clock and watch museum field trip: There may be exhibits on methods of timekeeping in the ancient times middle school students have recently started studying. Have younger students make sketches of water clocks they may see on exhibit and ask them to build one later to demonstrate them to other students. Older middle school and high school students could reflect and comment on the philosophical underpinnings of the dictum “tempus fugit,” or “time flies.”

2. Keep groups to a manageable size.

Ambient noise cuts down on ability to hear and interferes with attention span. This is particularly true in a large art museum with connecting galleries.

Suggestions for an art museum field trip: Have in hand a pen light. You can bring fine points of a portrait, a still life, or a landscape to the attention of everyone in a small group.

3. Encourage students to formulate and ask questions.

Suggested questions for a historic site field trip: Who were the people who lived at a historic house or worked at a historic site? What is known of the food they ate and the plants and crops they grew? Were there children living there? These can lead to other questions on how the museum or historic house is interpreted.

Suggested example for a historic house field trip: At a home built before the American Revolution, such as the Old Stone House in Georgetown (now Washington, D.C.) or Carlyle House in Alexandria, Virginia, students might be fascinated by the lives of the children and young adults who spent time there. Some historic houses interpret sites with that in mind. What musical instruments were played? Which games? Was the boy in the family later a soldier in the Revolutionary War or the Civil War? Did African-American slaves live and work in the house as well?

4. Incorporate the environment.

The ecosystem can say a lot about how the residents of a historical site lived and what their limitations or freedoms were.

Suggested example for a historic site field trip: While visiting a remote historical site such as Fort Ross in Jenner, California, a discussion on the concept of freedom itself could be developed: What were the occupants of such a remote site free from, and what were they free to do?

5. Compare and contrast.

Discuss the concept of a sense of place in this regard. Compare the present-day site with the setting as it may have been previously. “What creates a sense of place? In the case of an outdoor sculpture collection, how do the sculptures create the sense of place?

Suggested example for a field trip to an outdoor sculpture collection: The campus of Ursinus College in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, is embellished with seventy-five sculptures. Many of the pieces are by renowned artists, including Lynn Chadwick and George Anthonisen. During a stroll through the grounds, have students look closely at each piece and ask them to reflect on how it relates to its surroundings. Then ask them to think big and imagine the site before the sculptures were installed.

6. Remark upon the exterior of a historic building—style of architecture, a salient feature, or an oddity.

View an external structure such as a widow’s walk or a palladian window, and discuss the architectural style of a site before entering the building, even if it means crossing the street to gain a vantage point. This can lead to further discussions as various features of the building are reflected upon and related to the interior.

Suggested example for a historic building field trip: Discuss with students examples of the basic features of Georgian (the Old Corner Bookstore in Boston) and Federalist (Decatur House in Washington, D.C.) architectural styles and what they conveyed to the contemporary populace.

7. If possible, get a behind-the-scenes look at a conservation or preservation center.

Have students ask museum personnel questions about preservation and conservation. This is also an opportunity to discuss with students the relationships between history and archaeology.

Suggestions for an archeological field trip: Discuss with students the concept of historical record, written versus material. Archaeologists sometimes discover artifacts in outhouses such as shoes, tools, pieces of china, coins, or weapons that reveal untold stories about how the residents of the time lived, even what unsolved or unreported crimes may have occurred. Point out, too, that many museums work closely with a city archaeologist. Old Town Alexandria, in Northern Virginia is such a city, as are Boston, Massachusetts, and St. Augustine, Florida.

8. Switch back and forth between the cognitive and affective domains

As in the classroom, engaging students with what they are seeing by also having them, where possible, touch, listen, and smell enriches the learning experience immeasurably.  

Suggestions for field trips to various museums: Ask students to compare the feel of minerals, rocks, gems, tools, fabrics and a sculptor’s choice of material, and in a historical house or retail shop, ask students to close their eyes and focus on the scents there of elixirs, medicines, spices, and ointments. Ask students to each take in the scent of a spice such as cardamom and ask them if it brings to mind a visit to a grandparent’s home or another historic site or even present-day shop. What sense of place does this sensation evoke?

Once they experience museums and their collections this way, students will be more likely to engage with material culture in an analytical and thoughtful way. Students from literature and history classes are liable to get hooked on the idea that the artifacts and objects they encounter in museums are the bricks and mortar of our existence, the material evidence of our common humanity, and have their own stories to tell.

Suggested examples: