National Historic Preservation Month…and Why History Isn’t Boring

Posted: Monday, May 6th, 2013


May is National Historic Preservation Month. Did you know that? I didn’t until my coworker told me a few weeks ago. But now that I do, I’m excited! History is totally my jam.

I know, I know: History? Really? I’m well aware of the reputation that history, especially as a school subject, has gained over the years. Luckily, working at this place has allowed me to indulge my love for history, preservation, and all things old. For instance, I produced this workbook here and had a blast doing so. The development of this series was really just an excuse for me to dig around in some archival photos. I visit the Wikipedia pages of certain historical figures so often that I’ve rechristened them with friendly nicknames (Susie B, G-DubG-Dub C). Though it’s consistently at the low end of favorite subjects for the majority of kids, I’ve always been amazed and astounded by history.

I grew up with a dad who liked to travel, but who also hated spending money. As a result, I was in and out of a lot of weird museums on family vacations. The Portland Police Museum, for example. The Museum of Surgical Science. The Bata Shoe Museum (which you’d think would be wacky enough to hold my interest, but was actually kind of boring). And just a few years ago, as a grown-up taking my first vacation sans parents, I learned all about the history of sanitation at The Plumbing Museum – appropriately located in Watertown, Mass.

I wasn’t always enamored with artifacts – as a kid, I was actually a little freaked out by them. Traipsing through creaky old houses, even with a tour group, was a little unsettling to me. Even today, the smell of an old building gives me a little bit of a knot in my stomach.  But as time went on, that uneasiness transformed into curiosity. The past was still a little creepy to me, but at the same time, I wanted to get as close to it as I possibly could (this was happening around the same time I was getting into horror movies, actually. I wonder if that’s related). Today, I’ll browse antique stores for fun, and no matter where I am, will always stop to read a Historic Landmark plaque. Some of my happiest hours here are spent browsing old books and documents, searching for public domain content to use on worksheets.

As an adult, history feels almost like magic to me. Being able to see; touch things that existed before you were alive is such a thrill. You weren’t there to see all that time pass and can never, will never, comprehend everything that happened in that span of time, and really, as far as you know, it might not have ever happened…but here’s something that tells you it did. Even when I think about it really hard, history doesn’t make any sense at all.

When I came to, I always volunteered to take on social studies content because it meant I’d get to spend my days sifting through old photos and documents – something I do for fun. Though I’ve moved on to other tasks since then, I still get to do it occasionally, and I still get a little giddy when, while shuffling through PDF after PDF of yellowed paper, I run across something like this:

Abroad, a children’s picture book from 1882

Or this:

rocket book

The Rocket Book, copyright 1912.

However, my own interests aside, history, as part of a curriculum, still has a bad rap. I understand why — it’s actually pretty hard to make a case for history being all that useful in the real world. It’s not uncommon for kids to excel in language arts and science, but write off history as a “When am I ever going to use this?” subject.

So what can you do to get your kid to take a shine to social studies? Here are some suggestions on how to start:

Visit a weird museum. If you can think it, there is a museum out there dedicated to it. Does your kid have a specific interest? A sport? A style of music? Seek out strange museums in your hometown, or consider taking a summer vacation to a town that has one. However, you might want to pre-screen the place first: some seemingly innocuous museums contain mature content (see The Museum of Surgical Science above).

Scan the news. Now is actually an amazing time to start talking about artifacts — there have been a bunch of great discoveries in the news lately. Remember when they found the remains of Richard III under a parking lot late last year? How about getting to hear Alexander Graham Bell’s voice for the first time? Or this Buzzfeed list?  These are the kinds of things that got me wondering as a kid.

Take in a biopic. While screenwriters sometimes take liberties with the truth when it comes to based-on-a-true-story films, biography films are a great way to bridge the gap between fantasy and reality and help your child to start believing in history. 42, the story of Jackie Robinson, is in theaters right now.

Dive into some family heirlooms. Bring those boxes down from the attic and stroll down memory lane with your kids. Look at old certificates, trinkets and letters with your child and talk about how life has changed for that person. Family photos are especially great for tweens, who will love giggling at the outdated technology and goofy outfits. Not only is it a fun way to bond, examining old documents hits a lot of the points that teachers cover in reading and social studies lessons.

All these things and more are what helped me love history, and none of it would have been possible without preservation. Here’s to all the archivists, restorers, researchers and archaeologists out there. I can’t speak for most other people, but y’all are rock stars to me.

Kind of like the one on the right.

Though a lot of kids would disagree, history isn’t boring because humans aren’t boring. There have always been embarrassing aunts, noisy neighbors, and heroes and villains in our global story, and that’s something I try to convey in every worksheet I produce. History is weird and often improbable, and I’m still not entirely convinced it isn’t magic.

One Response to “National Historic Preservation Month…and Why History Isn’t Boring”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    Before I became a mom, I was into all this stuff, but now that I’m a SAHM, it all sits in our safe or the back of my closet.

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