All Hands On Deck


of an Exhibition

by Katherine Whitney

Published on September 23, 2010

  • Description:

    When was the last time you saw 14-year-old girls dress up in a museum exhibit? How many 16-year-olds girls do you know who would get down on their knees and scrub a deck? IN COSTUME! As a museum professional who has dragged her children to countless exhibits over the course of their short lives, and who has come to expect a significant amount of push back and bargaining (“Yes we can go to the mall but only if you go to the museum first…") I was stunned to find a history exhibit that was so engaging, my daughter actually talked to people about it afterwards. (“Hey, Dad, we saw this really cool exhibit…”)

    On a hot August morning, an exhibit developer and a Montessori teacher set out with four children—3 teenage girls and an 8-year-old boy— from their hotel near the Charlestown Navy Yard in Boston. Our goal was to walk as much of the brick-lined Freedom Trail as we could before the heat got to our motley crew. We hadn’t gotten very far before the kids ducked into the USS Constitution Museum. Their motivation likely had more to do with the interior air temperature than the desire for an educational experience, but as moms and educators we knew to seize the moment. Little did we know how much work the folks at the museum had already done to ensure that we would have a positive experience. We spent the next 2 hours exploring All Hands on Deck, an interactive, experiential exhibit about the life of ordinary sailors on the USS Constitution during the War of 1812.

    From the start the exhibit encourages interaction and conversation between visitors. The first activity takes place in a recreation of a tavern where sailors are recruited for service. Visitors assume the role of recruiter or recruited, sitting across from each other at a table. The recruiter asks a series of questions from a mounted script like “Do you have scurvy?" and “Have you ever swung in a hammock? Are you willing to do it next to 200 of your closest friends who haven’t taken a bath in awhile?” It was a great ice breaker that both got people talking and set the stage for a life at sea.

    From there we walked through exhibits about packing to leave for years, and peeked into a cut away of a sailor’s duffel bag stuffed with actual artifacts. Then it was time to dress up and scrub the decks. By this time, and we were still quite early in our path through the exhibit, the kids were excited, chatting, totally engaged.

    What I didn’t realize then was that this exhibit is actually one of the more heavily researched and documented history exhibitions out there. I could write a review that details each and every one of the amazing exhibits, but I will instead refer to the Family Learning Forum web site (web site reference below) which describes in detail the design and prototyping that went in to each of these engaging experiences. Their target audience was families, and I want to make the case that exhibit that are designed to be fun for families can also engage the elusive and fickle teenage visitor.

    In addition to the dressing up and deck scrubbing personal highlights included watching, dumbfounded, as my teenage daughter assembled a meal for me, pulling loose wooden “food” from bins and assembling it on a tin plate, while referring to a large visual menu on the wall for direction. I hadn’t seen this kind of activity since she was a toddler in front of her pretend stove plopping plastic vegetables onto plastic plates. Question: Will teenagers play? Given a carefully crafted environment, yes!

    A side note as to exhibit design, I was lucky enough to run into exhibit developer and museum staff member Rebecca Crawford on our way out of the museum and asked her about all the moving pieces of the mess hall exhibit. There were so many free floating dishes, cups and food parts which so often we decide not to include in exhibits because of the maintenance and replacement issues involved. She told me that evaluation found the level of interactivity supported by all these props outweighed the downside of having to restock the rations when they inevitably walked. For us the open ended opportunity afforded by the free floating food was what created the magical experience.

    This exhibit has so much to recommend it that I can’t cover here, like well crafted and INCREDIBLY SHORT labels, and affective learning experiences (“What do sailors feel after battle?”), and real artifacts. The captioned pictures that accompany this review tell much of my personal story. And for the exhibit professional, there is a lot of excellent documentation on the web sites below.

    Thank you, USS Constitution Museum, for creating such a wonderful interactive experience for the public, and for sharing so much of the process with your colleagues. We are all the richer for it.

Latest Comments (1)

Brave and great decision

by Ji hui Lim - October 03, 2010

“She told me that evaluation found the level of interactivity supported by all these props outweighed the downside of having to restock the rations when they inevitably walked.”


Broken and missing pieces of exhibits (and jigsaw puzzles) break my heart to no end. Decisions to put out an exhibit that is prone to suffer such misfortunes are tough ones and I applaud the UCC Constitution Museum for making it count.

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