Does “Hamilton” use Relevance to Teach Our Nation’s History?

Originally posted on Medium. November 3, 2016

Relevance is significant especially in museums to understand who our community is and to help individuals feel they can connect to our past in a way that they can relate to. We use that relevance every day in various mediums to reach to our audiences. I watched the Museum Hive discussion webinar with Nina Simon on the topic of museums, relevance, and community which aired live last week and it also draws on her book The Art of Relevance. In the beginning of the discussion, Simon described relevance as a “key that unlocks meaning”. We need to figure out how to make sure that we inspire them to desire that meaning we have in our museums. So how does Hamilton come into play on relevance? Broadway Tony Award winning musical Hamilton, a hip-hop musical about the life of one of our founding fathers Alexander Hamilton, is the most current example of using relevance to tell the story of our past that will inspire people to get into history and understand the meaning of that history. Hamilton’s America, a PBS Great Performances program aired on October 21st, discussed Alexander Hamilton’s history, how the Broadway musical was developed and had become the hit it is today. When I watched Hamilton’s America, I noticed that both Hamilton and museums in our country share this goal to make people understand why history and museums can be relevant today.

Towards the beginning of the documentary, Lin-Manuel Miranda talked about how he becomes the character as soon as he sees the rest of the cast dressed in costume. He revealed that the cast comes together as a community that agrees to create the world of Hamilton for people. What stayed with me during the documentary was when Lin-Manuel Miranda said,

“There’s the part of my brain that works really hard on making Hamilton historically accurate and exciting and high stakes; and then there’s the charge and the adrenaline that comes from performing something and hearing a response.”

My first thought was: Isn’t this what we do as museum educators? We teach about how history can be exciting with high stakes by in many cases dress up in historical costumes and create interactive experiences to hopefully get students inspired to see how this history has meaning in their own lives. History is a story of humanity; this is what most people forget and it is our job to remind them of that. It is a lesson that I remind myself I need to teach the students that visit the museum I work for.

Throughout my career as a museum educator, I have aspired to inspire students to learn about history using my excitement for what I teach and make sure they leave with the understanding of how history is relevant in their own lives. During my experiences as a museum educator, I dressed up in period clothing while I taught programs at the Old State House in Hartford, Connecticut, Stanley-Whitman House in Farmington, Connecticut, Noah Webster House & West Hartford Historical Society, and the Long Island Museum of American Art, History, and Carriages. Every time I dress in these costumes I step into the perspective of the individuals I portray; when teachers as well as students ask me questions about my costume and then ask me about why people dressed the way they did, I feel like I inspired them to understand the past. The more questions they ask, the more I think they are learning about the past. For instance, while I was at the Noah Webster House & West Hartford Historical Society I dressed as an old woman named Deborah Moore Kellogg and when students ask me questions about my character I tell them about who she was from her perspective as a woman who had to raise her children on her own when her husband passed away. Students learn about what life was like in 18th century was like by learning how hard people especially worked to survive in the then young country.

Another example was when I dressed as a school mistress in 19th century Long Island as I taught the School Days program at the Long Island Museum of American Art, History, and Carriages. The program was taught in a one room school house where I gave students samples of the lessons students in the 19th century learned, such as arithmetic, reading, and writing, and talked with the students about what school is like now and back then. What I take away from this experience is kids understand how different the one room school house was; while it is important I wonder can students see the similarities and therefore can relate to the past? That became my mission as I took the students to the one room schoolhouse. I also wondered about how relevance can be realized while I was taking a school tour through the Long Island Maritime Museum. I facilitate the school groups visit by taking them to each historic building including the Bayman’s Cottage, Boat Shop where boats were made, and the Oyster House (where an oyster business was held) as they hear about the history of each building from the docents. I enjoyed learning about Long Island’s maritime history in which I had limited knowledge of before I joined the museum. What is important for students to learn is to find out, in addition to the significance of maritime history, is to learn about the humanity behind the history. I like that when the kids were brought inside the Bayman’s Cottage the docent shows them how the bayman’s family had lived in tight living quarters in the early 19th century. These experiences have brought up this important question: what can we do to make our educational programs more relevant and inclusive?

As a fan of musicals, I believe historical themed musicals provide a creative way to teach history to a wide audience. Hamilton is not the first musical to teach history to people attending, since there many musicals especially 1776 which premiered on Broadway in 1969, but it gave a fresh look at our nation’s history using Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography Alexander Hamilton as inspiration as well as modern music to tell the story of this founding father. While I have not seen the musical live, I listened to the soundtrack and have seen clips from the news and the documentary. At first, it seemed like an odd concept to use rap in a historical musical; but when I listened to the soundtrack I realize how clever it was to describe Hamilton’s life and the lives of those around him using rap and other types of music for each different character. I also thought that the musical brought life into our founding fathers’ past and could inspire people to learn more about Alexander Hamilton and the rest of our founding people in 18th century America. The important take away from this musical is not only we learn about our founding fathers and mothers but as a community we learn about how we can relate to them. By casting of different racial backgrounds, i.e. Hispanic and African American, as Caucasian founders of the United States this shows what our country is like now and how our founders’ stories can happen to us now. No matter how big or small, we all work hard to make an impact on our country and to make a difference in our community. Hamilton and other founders worked on finding a way to create a democratic nation after breaking away from Great Britain. Miranda’s decision to create music that bring life to historical events rather than history textbooks giving general statements of what happened.

In Hamilton’s America, for instance, Miranda discussed the idea behind the song “Room Where It Happens” sung by Aaron Burr. He stated that instead of giving a “dry” history lesson about Hamilton trading New York City as the capital in exchange for the passage of his debt plan to pay off debts because of the Revolutionary War, a song is written from a different perspective to create human reaction to this event. This event was sung from Aaron Burr’s perspective as he sees everyone else pass him by and that is the moment when he realizes he wants to be more involved in this life rather than hanging back and being too careful. Individuals who have seen the musical and listened to the soundtrack would be able to find their way to meaning, and therefore it leads to them discovering its relevance in our community.

What do you think of Hamilton? Do you think it is an example of how relevance can be used? Why or why not? Is there another medium other than museums that create relevance? What does your institution do to bring relevance inside and outside your institution?

Resources:
Hamilton’s America. PBS Great Performances. Directed and Produced by Alex Horwitz. Executive Producers Lin-Manuel Miranda, Jeffrey Seller, et. al., October 21, 2016.
Museum Hive with Nina Simon: Museums and Relevance. Google Hangouts on Air, Brad Larson. www.museumhive.org. Streamed October 26, 2016.

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