Most children (and probably many adults) don’t realize it, but they are interacting with the past all the time.
“Every time there are current events — why we do and learn certain things — it is actually connected to what has happened before,” notes Nancy Villafranca-Guzmán, vice president for education and engagement at the Chicago History Museum. “It affects why schools are run the way they are and the way sports are played. Decisions made a really long time ago affect things today.”
And that is why, she says, it’s crucial for children to learn from and about history — not just a dry list of names and dates to be memorized, but the before and after of each significant event. “Why did that happen? What did we learn afterwards?” Villafranca-Guzmán says. “When we connect the past, the present and the future, the cause and effect, we learn how we each play a role.”
Of course, that is not the overt message awaiting visitors to the Chicago History Museum, Chicago’s oldest cultural institution. Instead, it uses engaging exhibits and some 100,000 artifacts to teach families all about their city and its place in the world.
“Local history does not get too much attention in traditional K-12 education,” Villafranca-Guzmán points out, “so we provide a different lens of what events mean to us locally and how we are unique, but also part of something bigger.”
Kids are too busy being entertained and fascinated at the museum to realize that they’re also being educated. Among the highlights that make that happen:
- The Great Chicago Adventure Film, a 27-minute, age-appropriate movie in which young protagonists travel through time to witness major events in the city’s history, from the Great Chicago Fire to the building of the Sears Tower to major sporting victories and periods of civic unrest.
- Crossroads of America, a series of galleries that highlight significant artifacts through interactive features and multimedia presentations. Kids can climb aboard the first “L” car, learn about jazz and the blues, and check out a vintage Marshall Fields storefront. Among the options for self-guided audio tours is one written and performed by Lake View High School students.
“Getting to touch an object used decades or even more than 100 years ago gives children a different sense of history,” says Villafranca-Guzmán. “It’s a good way to have kids think about what has changed and what has stayed the same.”
- CHM at Home is a virtual program that presents daily “history challenges” that are easy to do and use everyday household objects. “We began this last spring when we started working remotely,” says Villafranca-Guzmán. “These are short, age-appropriate activities that kids can even do on their own.”
- Coming in October is a major retrospective on the 150-year anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire, which is specifically tailored toward children. “In a lot of history museums, exhibits are made for an older audience,” Villafranca-Guzmán says, “but here children are not an after-thought – they are the ones we are designing it for.”
This past year has been one for the books, not only due to Covid-19, but also the widespread civic unrest that has emerged after a number of high-profile police killings. Children, Villafranca-Guzmán says, are watching and listening.
“They are hearing all sorts of perspectives now when it comes to history that might have been buried or not talked about in the past,” she notes. “With all the noise out there, we need to empower kids with tools so they can become critical thinkers. The future is in their hands and they need to have a way to shape it going forward to be more informed citizens.
“This last year,” she adds, “has even made me think about history differently.”
Museum capacity is currently limited to 275 people at a time (25% capacity). Timed-entry advance tickets are encouraged. All visitors over age 2 must wear masks at all times. Visit https://www.chicagohistory.org/