If all the world is a stage and we are merely players . . . then is history our script, in serial form and full of cliffhangers? Will we repeat the same plots or produce a new version of our story? How can the past help us find meaning and direction in an unruly and surprising present?
As “actors,” visitors can do more than simply recite their lines. Exhibit interpreters can guide and coach visitors in “method acting.” That is, they can introduce them to a setting and the objects in that setting, and encourage them to imagine themselves involved on a personal level. Museum educators, and especially docents, know the power of objects to summon a scene from the past — an artist’s sense of color, an engineer’s ingenuity, or a turning point in the story of a city. What more can be done, however, to make objects live vibrantly, and to give a visitor ownership of the moment that those objects summon?
At the Spertus Museum in Chicago, visitors enter the ARTIFACT Center to find a replica dig site and a Marketplace. They have experiences with ancient writing, agriculture, pottery, trade and travel, as well as with musical instruments of the ancient Near East. The exhibits invite visitors to take up tools and recording materials, make archaeological discoveries, conduct research, enter data in a field computer, and time-travel to the Israel of 2500 BCE. Actual and reproduction artifacts from millennia ago surface as the dig proceeds. Visitors compare their finds to objects displayed in the Marketplace. They get a real feel for archaeological fieldwork and the importance of record keeping. (Such realistic experiences have led sixth-graders to declare their intentions to be archaeologists when they grow up. Talk about role-playing!)
The core exhibit of the ARTIFACT Center is a replica of a “tell,” a 32-foot-long and ten-foot-high dig site, with twelve test pits serving as digging stations. Each of the test pits contains an assemblage of real and facsimile artifacts. An actual tell is a large mound commonly found in the Near East that comprises many layers of successive human habitation. Each test pit in our tell is specific to one of the time periods represented by its layers.
Every visitor to the tell, whether in a tour group or as individuals, has the opportunity to explore the site and discuss his finds with the exhibit interpreters present. With this guidance, and the resources surrounding the exhibit spaces called the Marketplace, visitors experience the materials and techniques of archaeology, as well as games, clothing, and other hands-on experiences that reinforce a sense of immediacy.
In an effort to expand upon this experience, the Spertus Museum initiated collaborations with two other Chicago museums. Following their digs at the ARTIFACT Center in the Spertus Museum, school group visitors travel to either the Art Institute of Chicago or The Field Museum of Natural History for the second part of their tour. At all three museums, the role of the exhibit interpreter is key. Students offer these “experts” their hypotheses about the functions of the artifacts they find. The docents guide students to areas of the gallery that provide additional information and, then, they discuss their conclusions in light of other evidence. In this way, the young explorers discover resources that help them piece together the “puzzles” they unearthed.
When students participate in The Journey of an Archaeologist tour, which ends in the Ancient Egypt exhibition at The Field Museum, the theme holding the experience together is “olive oil.” Olive oil was an important commodity in the ancient Near East. Students identify the ways that people used olive oil and the kinds of artifacts related to those uses. Then, they search for such artifacts on the tell. Once found, they pack up some of the objects used for olive oil, load them into a crate, and take them on the bus from the Spertus Museum to The Field Museum.
At The Field Museum, students sketch the artifacts they have brought over in a crate, and discuss the importance of detailed archaeological documentation. The exhibit interpreter brings them into their Egyptian marketplace gallery, provides them with a sheet of questions about the objects both in the gallery and in hand, and directs the students to areas of the gallery that offer further discoveries.
Tours in conjunction with the Art Institute of Chicago, entitled Passport to the Past, follow a similar pattern but have different objectives. As with The Field Museum project, the experience includes a dig on the tell at the Spertus Museum, and discussions about findings. In this case, however, students have mock passports and visa forms to fill out. On their travel documents, they state the purpose of their visit and list the objects they expect to discover. Then, they imagine themselves traveling to the lands of the cultures represented in the ARTIFACT Center and in selected galleries of the Art Institute, exploring the ways that collections give insights into life centuries ago in locations around the globe.
Encouraged by the success of this collaborative program, the ARTIFACT Center at Spertus Museum has joined in more collaborative efforts with Chicago arts organizations. The synergy produced by combining resources creates an environment for learning that has great momentum and scope. Such collaborations benefit all the participants and provide the institutions with additional opportunities to expand their perspectives and to learn from one another.
Susan Bass Marcus is Curator of the Paul and Gabriella Rosenbaum ARTIFACT Center at Spertus Museum in Chicago, Illinois. Years after receiving her master’s degree in Italian and Comparative Romance Literatures, Ms. Marcus returned to graduate school for a degree in Interdisciplinary Arts in Education with an emphasis on museum education. She has been working in this field since 1982.
Bass Marcus, Susan. “Collaborative Programs that Personalize Learning,” The Docent Educator 11.3 (Spring 2002): 8-9.