By Tim Grove, Grove History Consulting

I became alarmed recently when a former colleague told me that the director of a large history and science museum had announced her deep reservation about moving forward with the renovation and re-design of the museum’s premier and very popular hands-on space because of perceived widespread public fear of tactile components moving forward. This seems highly reactionary, though perhaps not surprising, given the uncertainties of the period we find ourselves in. While we are still traveling through the tunnel and are not sure what is on the other side, we need to think carefully and intentionally about what hands-on and tactile components look like in the future. It is narrow-minded to make a blanket decision that they are just too risky for visitors.

This mentality threatens to take exhibition presentation technique back several decades. We cannot afford to lose the ground we’ve advanced in the fight to make learning experiences more accessible to all kinds of learners.

As someone who has tirelessly advocated for hands-on learning my entire career and who has developed many types of interactives for history exhibitions, I have a vested interest in this. I was program manager of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History’s innovative Hands On History Room, an activity-based learning space for all ages that became an international model of history education. I read the visitor comment books filled with comments like, “I never knew history could be so fun!” I co-authored The Museum Educator’s Manual (Rowman and Littlefield, 2nd ed. 2017) in which I wrote “a high quality learning interactive will provoke thought, emotion, or imagination and increase both physical and intellectual accessibility.” And, I’ve worked on a variety of large, long-term exhibitions at the Smithsonian.

Museum educators can describe the many theories espousing different learning styles and preferences. Ask them. Evidence also shows that while children as a group generally prefer hands-on experiences, certain adult learners also prefer and highly value hands-on learning. A recent learning preference model from the Smithsonian is called IPOP, for Ideas, People, Object, and Physical. It argues that one audience segment prefers to learn through tactile and kinesthetic experience. They are hands-on learners.

It took history museums many decades to reach the point where hands-on learning is valued and incorporated into learning experiences, for all ages, not just young learners. And not every organization has arrived.

The field continues to fight long-held perceptions that history museums are about things behind glass, that cannot be touched. Despite great progress, we still have a long way to go in areas of accessibility.

I’m encouraged to read in various places (including a recent New York Times article “No Touch, No Hands-On Learning, for Now, as Museum Try to Reopen,” May 29, 2020) that museums are already beginning to think about how they can preserve the interactive experience. Our colleagues in children’s museums and science centers are already thinking about how to ease germ fears and navigate the world after COVID-19. Their livelihood depends on it. But history museums haven’t given up interactivity entirely. The National World War II Museum will give each visitor a disposable stylus for use on the museum’s many computer touch screens. Some new technologies use visible light to create an oxidation reaction that somehow disinfects at a microscopic level, while some offer an antiviral coating. Voice and gesture activated technology has been around for a while, but can be clunky and cost-prohibitive. Hopefully it will take a step forward in the near future and become a more viable option for museums. But we must continue to innovate. More interactive content on personal hand-held devices may be one of the solutions, as long as it doesn’t distract from focus on the original sources.

While I was managing the Hands On History Room, the internet burst onto the scene. In an attempt to be forward-thinking historians, my colleagues and I immediately began to ask whether a hands-on activity could be adapted to the online format. As a national museum, our mandate was national reach. It was an experiment. We made several attempts to varying degrees of success. We learned that the more inquiry and layering of information you incorporate into an online experience, the stronger and more memorable it becomes. The digital cannot replace the tactile, obviously, but interactivity comes in many iterations.

The experimental mindset is something we need to invoke now more than ever.

Tim Grove is a historian, educator, and exhibition developer. He works with museums and history sites to create engaging, powerful learning spaces and products that are physically and intellectually accessible to the broadest audience.

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