Living History Museums 101

My family and I spent the entire summer last year touring the east side of the country. We visited a total of 8 states and saw too many amazing things to count. Among those amazing things—and easily my favorite parts—were four different living history museums.

As a child I was absolutely fascinated by history. Luckily, I was homeschooled, so I had the time and freedom to explore this passion. I read enough historical fiction novels to fill a library, and spent hours diving into the details of topics like World War 2 and the everyday lives of pioneers. Sadly, as I grew older and took up other hobbies, I let this interest go by the wayside.

The living history museums we visited this summer reignited that flame, and better yet, they gave my kindergartener the same history-loving bug. He will now sometimes begin conversations with questions about the American Revolution or remind us of something he learned about the Pilgrims during our time in Massachusetts. To top it all off, my husband is equally as interested in such things. Needless to say, I am thoroughly enjoying this new passion my family has found together.

All of this is to say that I very strongly recommend visiting a living history museum near you or while you are on vacation. Want to learn more about these fantastic learning opportunities? Read on to get all the answers you might need.

What should I expect at a living history museum?

These types of museums offer a unique experience in that they immerse visitors in whichever era they are learning about. This is something that makes the whole experience very rich, engaging, and exciting. It also makes it much easier to relate to the historical figures we read about so often.

While visiting a living history attraction, your child might be asked to help with chores, or they may get to chat with a famous person from history. You might sit around the fire with Native Americans, or you could find yourself aboard a to-scale replica of a ship from the 1600s. All of these situations present great learning opportunities, and knowledgeable employees are always around to answer questions.

One thing I should note is that at some museums, such as Plimoth Plantation, you will be visiting with actors who are portraying actual people from history. They will respond to all questions exactly as the person they are portraying may have, and the experience is very, very immersive.

In other living history attractions, people may be dressed in the clothing of the time, but they don’t necessarily portray a particular historical figure or even act in historical character. Instead, they have more modern conversations about the things they are doing.

Both ways of doing things have pros and cons, and doing a bit of research will help you understand which side of the fence a particular museum falls on.

What should we do to prepare for our visit?

Because we didn’t plan to visit these museums initially, we did very little to prepare for our first living history museum visit. Fortunately, this visit was to Colonial Williamsburg, and our family already had a decent understanding of that time in history from listening to the Hamilton soundtrack and doing some light reading of our own about it. However, I do wish we had done a bit more prepwork.

After our visit to Colonial Williamsburg, we knew we wanted to see similar sites. Therefore, we did some research, found the places we would visit, and prepared ourselves and our son accordingly.

Here are some of the things you might want to do to prepare:

Read — This is perhaps the most important and effective way to get ready for your visit. We read together every night, and in preparation for our field trips, we simply switched our reading material over to historical fiction. We found that the Magic Treehouse books are perfect for younger kids, and also enjoyed the If You Lived… series. Of course, you could use any books that appeal to you and your family.

Check out my roadschool guides for more specific suggestions.

Watch Videos — Video is a great way to get through to the more visual kids out there. There are a number of cartoons out there for introducing young students to American history, and you can find them by doing a simple Google search. I really love Liberty’s Kids for learning about the Revolutionary War, this YouTube playlist has tons of kids history videos, and the Have Fun With History website has some cool options as well.

Listen to Music — Music has the amazing power to mentally transport a person in time and place. Find some music from the time period you are studying and use that to enhance your lessons.

Cook — Food is another great way to get a feel for how people of a particular time period may have lived. Find some recipes from the proper point in history and give historical cooking a go. After doing this, be sure to seek out the kitchens at the living history museum to see the kinds of tools people would have had to cook with.

Create a Costume — While we didn’t take the time to create costumes for our field trips, we did see other children wearing costumes. You students might find that dressing up really helps them play the part of a person from history.

Where can I find a living history museum?

There are dozens of these kinds of museums all over the United States. To find one near you, check this list. It’s not an exhaustive list, so you may also want to run a search for one. If one isn’t nearby, keep looking, you’re sure to find one at some point, and it’ll be worth the wait.

Obviously, I can’t speak to the experience found at all of the locations listed at that link. However, I can say that the following museums were fantastic:

We also visited New Salem Village in Illinois a few years back, and while there were no guides to answer questions, we did enjoy it.

I hope this piece gives you a better understanding of what a living history museum is. More than that though, I hope it inspires you to find one near you and pay a visit. I promise it will be well worth your time and the perfect addition to your history curriculum.

Have you visited a living history museum that you loved? Let us know about it in the comments below.

4 Comments

  1. Hi there. I’m a homeschool mother. This summer my family is traveling up the East Coast. I love your recommendations and would love to stop by these museums. If you could you please put in order of where you would go first, second and the last? Just in case we don’t make it to all of them.
    Thank you very much, we will certainly be using your website for lots of good information!

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    1. Plimouth Plantation is my number one. Colonial Williamsburg is in second, with the others following.

      However, if you’re going in chronological order based on time period, you’d want to do Plimouth, Jamestown, Williamsburg, the Revolution Museum.

      Like

  2. Hi again!
    We just left the Virginia area and we absolutely loved your recommendations!! We went to Jamestown and The Revolutionary Museum at Yorktown on separate days and got a great homeschool discount. We also went to Colonial Williamsburg and loved it. One tip for discounts: while there is homeschooling discounts it was much cheaper for us to get teacher discounts for us as parents (with proof). For the children: we were told that a loyalty card from “Food Lion” will get us $10 off their ticket of $21, making it only $11! We are grateful for your information and hope this can help someone.

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