Last December I heard that the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) was soon to open up its online ticket system for large groups. I set the date on my calendar, waited until the day arrived, and put in a request for both of my Introduction to Sociology classes to visit the museum. We got lucky – sixty tickets were allocated to us on the day I had requested, a Saturday in early March.
I made the field-trip a required part of both of my Introduction to Sociology classes, and will likely continue to do so in the future (though the Museum seems to have suspended the group pass ticket program for the moment due to continuing high demand). The idea was not just to expose the students to the museum’s content, but to ask them to engage with it sociologically. I wanted them to practice identifying sociological ideas outside of the classroom. For example, they were tasked with looking for where the museum content illustrates the idea of the social construction of race, which we had read about in class, though I told them the exhibits that did so wouldn’t use those specific terms.
For teachers who live in Washington DC, the NMAAHC is a great place to take students. It’s free, easy to access by metro, and, of course, has incredible content. I had been through the lower floors once before, which helped me decide how to direct our visit. We arrived early to make sure all 60 students were assembled by the time the museum opened at 10am, which was also the time our tickets gave us entry. The space set up for large groups to wait and enter worked fine. I used the time in line to hand out worksheets and give reminders about what time we would meet again as a group. The worksheet served the purpose of directing their eyes toward things we had already been discussing in class, and giving them lots to talk about in our group discussion. Take a look at it here.
The students were free to peruse the museum individually or in groups at their own pace. The only requirements were that they take notes on what they saw on the worksheet, and meet on the ground level at noon for discussion until 1pm, at which time they were free to go. I encouraged students to start at the bottom of the museum in the earliest section of the history floors. Because we entered at the beginning of the day, most of the students reported not spending more than 20 or 30 minutes waiting in line to go down the elevator to enter the exhibit at the bottom floor. The few that didn’t begin there and tried to go down later in the morning reported that the line had ballooned out significantly, making those floors inaccessible within the time we had available.
Because I didn’t get around to looking into classroom space within the museum until it was too late, we had our discussion on the entry level of the museum instead, with most of us sitting on the floor in a large group by the windows. This was fun in a way, as we were very much in the mix of the museum-goers (one curious soul even stopped to join us for a short time). However, the ambient noise and the size of the group made it hard to hear ourselves talk, so next time I’ll inquire earlier about those classrooms. Next time I might also give the students a bit more time in the museum itself before asking them to meet for discussion – probably 10-12:30 on their own and then group discussion from 12:30-1:15.
Next semester I’d also like to make time during the next regular class meeting after the field-trip for discussion, especially to revisit some of the more conceptually challenging content on the worksheet. I’ve started a small collection of photographs of specific museum exhibits that relate to course content that I think will be useful to show in the classroom. As I show an image of a particular exhibit, the students that saw it at the museum but didn’t think to link it to our course readings will make a new connection, and students that missed it at the museum will get a chance to see it for the first time.
Check out photos from our trip below, or if you are reading this in your e-mail inbox, online.