Teens Make History
The Missouri History Museum calls Teens Make History (TMH) a “work-based learning program,” and the museum is serious about providing participants with substantive assignments that increase job readiness, while deepening their exposure to history and the humanities. These aren’t “feel-good” projects that simulate museum work, explains Elizabeth Pickard, director of interpretive programs for the St. Louis-based museum. “This is actual work that the museum needs to have done.”
TMH’s scope has expanded considerably since 2007, when the St. Louis Science Center helped pilot the program. Each year, the museum recruits a diverse group of high school students for an eight-week Academy that serves as an introduction. Those who show an aptitude for museum work can apply for year-round paid apprenticeships as TMH Players or Exhibitors.
The TMH Players develop theater pieces that help bring museum exhibitions alive for summer school and camp groups, as well as other audiences, visitors, and the general public. For example, they produced a play in conjunction with Discovering the Real George Washington, a touring exhibition. The teens looked at the issue of slavery in George Washington’s own household by telling the story of Oney “Ona” Judge, a young, enslaved woman who’d escaped from Mount Vernon. Along with transforming historical figures into “real people with real emotions,” the TMH Players helped make the museum a more welcoming space to visitors from varied backgrounds, Pickard explains.
The TMH Exhibitors, meanwhile, draw on their unique youthful perspective to identify topics of interest to multigenerational and multicultural visitors. For one project, the students examined the homecoming and postwar experiences of St. Louis-area soldiers from World War I through the war with Iraq. They conducted oral histories, collected objects, and wrote labels (descriptive text) for the 1,000-square-foot exhibition, Between Two Worlds: Veterans Journey Home. Some 70,000 visitors viewed this exhibition, which opened in 2013.
The teens’ work must meet professional standards. Label text for the veterans’ exhibition “went through Publications, just like adult label copy does, and came back with the same red marks, questions, and demands for clarification,” Pickard recalls. Students can stay in the program up to three years, strengthening their ability to collaborate with others, as well as their communication and problem-solving skills, with each new assignment. After joining the program, grades increase for about 60 percent of the participants. And, nearly all—96 percent—of TMH’s graduates go on to college or professional training programs.
The expectation at the Missouri History Museum is for very high-quality work, and the Teens Make History apprentices deliver that work time and again—enriching the audiences’ experience, as well as their own.Ron Himes Founder and Producing Director, The Black Repertory Company, St. Louis, MO