Hear Us, See Us: Museum Theatre and Beyond
by Shemika Berry
Most of us find it challenging to talk (and to learn) about the horrific parts of history. It's important that we have discussions about difficult parts of our history so that we can:
facilitate generational healing
remember our ancestors and their struggles
educate our communities authentically
encourage the next generation to make the world better.
I'm often asked how those topics can be handled to reach various audiences. For educational institutions, there are creative options for facilitating these discussions: interactive tours that include monologues, museum theatre, question and answer sessions, and panel discussions—hosted both in-person and virtually. These are all methods to create a learning environment that allows audiences to be reached more effectively. As educators and as program participants, you can choose from a variety of formats that may help you to teach and to learn. Here are a few examples I'd like to share....
The Accokeek Foundation's Eco-Explorers: Colonial Time Warp tour is designed for elementary students and combines science with history. In this tour, students are transported back to 1770 to find modern objects that have been left behind by another time traveler, and they consider whether it's safe to leave these objects for the residents of 1770. During their adventure they encounter Cate Sharper, an enslaved woman who tells them her story and why she would want to keep the modern object she has found. This tour incorporates monologue to allow the students to "see" and "meet" a woman who lives a life that they have only read about briefly in their history books. This tour humanizes someone from the past, who otherwise might just represent a concept that's hard for students to grasp. Below is a video of Cate Sharper's story.
Museum theatre is the use of theatre and theatrical techniques by a museum or other educational institution, to both teach and to entertain. Historic sites, art galleries, and parks use performances like these, often with professional actors, and sometimes using music, puppetry, and visual art to engage with visitors. Theatre can bring history to life, put faces to names, embody stories, and draw emotion from the viewers. It is an opportunity for viewers to learn in an environment that does not require active participation, but that connects emotionally with participants' imaginations.
This video presentation from one of our partners, Historic Sotterley, Inc., uses museum theatre to tell the story of enslaved people having a choice to make during the War of 1812.
Question and answer sessions allow active engagement between the viewers and the presenters. In-depth discussions and age-appropriate education can be included at the conclusion of museum tours, theatre presentations, and outreach programs. Providing advance context to the viewers about what they are going to see, and why, can frame the presentation, opening the door for meaningful conversations and clarity in understanding concepts that are not often discussed.
In addition to telling the story of Cate Sharper, an enslaved woman who lived in Prince George's County, the Accokeek Foundation also presents expanded stories of the Sharper family with "Sisters Forever" and "The Reunion of Cate and Jack," to discuss the African American experience in the 18th century. These presentations use museum theatre with question and answer sessions through a virtual platform.
Panel discussions with experts and educators in various fields provide first person insights into the museum world. Earlier this year, the panel for Hear Us, See Us: Voicing the Past highlighted the emotional impact and struggles that first person interpreters and educators experience.
Using tools like these, it's possible to deliver programs that educate audiences about the truth of our history, while honoring the ancestors' lives by telling their stories and increasing awareness of the importance of discussing the most difficult parts of history.
If you would like to learn more about being a historical interpreter, you can contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you are interested in participating in future Accokeek Foundation educational programs, please contact email@example.com.