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Building Blocks of History

How does a historic site interpret a past that is still very much the Ml subject of study and research? At Riverside, the Farnsley- Moremen Landing in Louisville, by Kentucky, we chose to invite some of our youngest visitors to participate in that process. And, we developed a couple ot simple activities to round-out their experience.

Riverside opened to the public in October, 1993. Its centerpiece is a recently-restored farm house built circa 1837 on a beautiful stretch of the Ohio River. The museum was organized to interpret historic farm life on the river. However, all of the outbuildings, such as the barn, smoke house, wash house, ice house, and detached kitchen, were lost years ago to benign neglect. The staff continues research into documentary sources and oral histories while extensive archaeology is being conducted to learn more about the outbuildings and life on the farm. Long-range plans call for the eventual reconstruction of outbuildings.

As excited as we were about the research in progress, our staff and volunteer guides faced difficult questions as we tried to help elementary students find meaning in the incomplete farm site. How could we help children understand that this was a farm if only the house survives? How could children gain an understanding Of what archaeology is? How could they appreciate the valuable role artifacts, documents, and photographs play in interpreting the past? In response to these questions, we developed a full-day field trip called “The Building Blocks of History” with help from archaeologist Jay Stottman of the Kentucky Archaeological Survey.

Before students start digging at the site of a long-lost outbuilding, we want them to get a sense of the big picture. A brief question and answer period led by an archaeologist gives the children an opportunity to learn what archaeologists do. The archaeologist also asks the children to think about how the particular site explain that they are not digging with random abandon. Students are able to see that careful attention to the level and context of the artifacts often reveals important information about the artifacts age and use. Although each “Building Blocks” participant gets to take a trowel in hand and dig, they also screen and wash artifacts. It time permits, they work with an archaeologist to do a preliminary sort of the artifacts recovered. Before they was chosen for excavation. With the right guidance, students frequently offer the sources of information that were indeed used to locate the site: maps, photographs, old documents, and family stories.

We want participants to come away with an idea of the methods used in archaeology. Their guides leave the site, students learn that the artifacts they found will be analyzed and the findings written up in a report. We also stress that the artifacts found will wind up in our museum and not in a private individual’s hands.

Like all visitors to Riverside, participants in “Building Blocks” tour the historic Farnsley-Moremen House. Tour guides in the house ask children open-ended questions to help them make connections to the missing elements of the farm. For example, they ask, “Why do you think the kitchen was a separate building?” In addition, guides point out family furnishings, documents, and photographs on the tour. They encourage students to share ideas about what these artifacts may reveal about the lives of the people who called Riverside home. This reinforces the notion that what we know about the past is based on how we interpret what has survived into the present.

Finally, participants in “Building Blocks” get their hands and bodies moving once more by working clay into small quick-drying bricks that are taken home at the end of the day. The children learn about an important artifact left behind by Gabriel Farnsley, the builder of the farm house. Farnsley etched his name into the wet clay of a brick before it was fired. The brick with Farnsley s signature was discovered in the cornice of the house during restoration.

We encourage each student to etch his/her own name — or a message onto their bricks. Their guides ask them what someone who might find their brick in the future could learn through that artifact. Students are also asked to think about how our knowledge of the past builds through the addition of information, just as our house was built brick by brick.

“Building Blocks” is giving Riverside a chance to involve students in research critical to interpreting the history of the farm. Participants come away with a better understanding of the process of interpreting the past— and a better understanding of the history of the site. Also important, we are building an audience that will revisit Riverside as the years go by to see how the outbuilding reconstruction has progressed and how the interpretation of the site has evolved. These participants literally helped to uncover some of the information and they are helping us to build our future.

Patti Linn has been the Site Manager of Riverside, the Farnsley-Moremen Landing in Louisville, Kentucky, since 1 994. She holds a Master of Arts in Teaching from the University of Louisville and a Bachelor of Arts from Murray State University. Ms. Linn has experience as both a public school teacher and a museum educator.

Linn, Patti. “Building Blocks of History,” The Docent Educator 7.3 (Spring 1998): 18-19.

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