History and Museums Interpreted Through Children’s Media

Added to Medium, August 10, 2018

This week’s post is about museums and history being interpreted in children’s media such as books and television shows. By using children’s media to discuss history and museums, adults have the opportunity to introduce history and museums to a whole new generation to emphasize the significance of preserving and protecting history and our resources to connect with the past with our present. We are lucky that there are many different resources for children to learn more about history and museums. Because there are so many to go through, I decided to focus on books and television shows that I came across recently then give my impressions of the mediums. I also included a list of other television shows and books I came across while researching for this blog post.

Children’s television shows provide educational programming to help young kids understand the world around them and encourages them to ask questions so they can learn more about what they see on television. Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) kids shows are great example of broadcasting children’s shows that are both fun and educational. One of those shows, one that I grew up watching, was Mr. Rogers Neighborhood hosted and created by Fred Rogers. Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood talked about different subjects between 1968 and 2001, from everyday fears related to going to sleep, getting shots to losing a loved one to death. He used talking directly to the children, simple songs, and segments from the Neighborhood of Make-Believe to get his points across. Also, Mr. Rogers would use a picture frame to take a closer look at various events such as showing children how crayons are made.

In the second season seventh episode Mr. Rogers introduces the episode by telling the audience (or kids) he is taking them to an art gallery . Before they leave, he shows the viewers a couple of paintings from post cards they will be able to see there, and reminds them to look and listen carefully when they visit the gallery in a museum. In other words, as one looks at the paintings they should listen to the thoughts and questions they have about the paintings they see. At the Neighborhood Art Gallery, they meet Bae Jetson who shows them paintings and Mr. Rogers talked with Bae about what he observes in each painting such as what is going on in the painting itself and who painted each one. For instance, in a painting of a farm the artist grew up on Mr. Rogers kept talking about how he could look at the painting all day because there is so much going on in one painting. This episode shows children what it is like to observe paintings in the gallery space. It encourages children to use their imaginations to see what may be going on in a painting, and reveals that there are so many different types of paintings made by many artists and even one artist can create different types of painting.

What I also like about the Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood episode was that Bae Jetson pointed out something that we are talking about and making sure people understand even today: museums are for everyone. Museum professionals like myself have been working on ways how we can show individuals we are a part of the community and everyone in the community should have the opportunity to have access to what we offer in our museums.

Not all children’s television shows focusing on history and museums were as impressive to me. Most recently I discovered a show on Netflix called The Who Was Show, a sketch comedy and history program in which a character named Ron played by Andy Daly who interacts with a group of teenagers and it is interspersed with historical vignettes and narrated by H. Jon Benjamin. The show is based on the Who Was…? book series published since 2003. I saw the first four episodes of the thirteen episodes aired, and it was hard for me to get through them as well as continue watching the rest of them. While I knew that I am not the target audience for the show, it is not a show that I would recommend even to the children that are part of the target audience since it talks down to its viewers with their “lessons”. Even though I liked that it shared information about historical figures and attempted to compare and contrast each of them, the show is too formulaic and shoves the lessons and jokes in the viewers faces. For instance, in the first episode they compared Benjamin Franklin and Gandhi by pointing out that they were both bald and stood up against British oppression then proceeded with forced sketches, and at the end of each episode had a “what we learned today?” and an animated press conference talking to the historical figures about what they liked the most about being on the show and what a great show it was if they have not hammered that fact in enough throughout each episode. It tries too hard to convey the idea that history is cool, and I believe it is not the best way to retain the audience’s attention.

A similar show I grew up watching also used sketches to convey information about historical events and figures but did so in a way that did not seem to be forced down the audience’s throats. The show Histeria! aired on Kids WB in the United States between 1998 and 2000, and it derived most of humor from its slapstick comedy and satire, and had the distinction of combining historical figures and events. Unlike the Who Was Show, it did not feel like they were forcing the idea that history is cool and that it is a great show. It did not need to talk about what a great show it is and that history is cool because these ideas were already conveyed through the sketches, songs, and other segments. Television is not the only medium children could learn about history and museums.

Books have been used long before televisions were invented, and would continue to be used to help children learn especially about history and museums. I discovered in recent years the I Survived series of books mainly written by Lauren Tarshis which talked about various historical events and disasters that fictional characters went through. I read I Survived the American Revolution, 1776 on a recommendation by one of the Education Committee members at the Three Village Historical Society. The book is about an eleven year old boy who found himself in the middle of the battlefield during the American Revolution fighting against the British. It is not only an easy read for children but it also provided an insight that introduces the reader to what the American Revolution was in our history.

There are also numerous books that either featured museums or were centered around museums. One of the books I came across was A is for Artist: A Getty Museum Alphabet by John Harris which shares details from paintings on display at the Getty Museum used to illustrate the alphabet; one example is I is for Iris painted by Van Gogh. Harris’s book could be easily used as a guide to the Getty Museum by looking for the details printed for each letter. Another example of a children’s book about museums is Behind the Museum Door: Poems to Celebrate the Wonders of Museums selected by Lee Bennett Hopkins and illustrated by Stacey Dressen-McQueen. Hopkins’ selections captures childhood curiosity, and translates their questions and musings about museum objects into verse. Also, there are poems that speak to fascinating artifacts such as fossils, mummies, and dinosaur skeletons. There are also more recommended books for children about museums in the list from the National Endowment for the Arts blog.

What books about history and museums have you come across that children enjoy? How do you feel about television programs for children that educates them about history?

National Endowment for the Arts: https://www.arts.gov/art-works/2015/childrens-books-about-museums
Mister Rogers Neighborhood: https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x5itxry
The Who Was Show: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt7488702/
Histeria!: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0175738/
Museum Impressions, Plimoth Plantation: https://wp.me/p8J8yQ-qa
Does History Repeat Itself? A Discussion About This Concept: https://wp.me/p8J8yQ-rV
People’s Experiences during the Great Depression: https://wp.me/p8J8yQ-rA


  1. Did you watch Liberty’s Kids? I’m trying to find it to see if I want to share the series with my nieces.

    I have always attributed my passion for learning history to American Girl. You are probably too young to remember Pleasant Company as it was called back then. The founder, Pleasant Rowland was an educator. In addition to the fiction books the company also produced newsletters, craft kits, craft books, cookbooks and museum programs for kids to learn about the history of their favorite character’s time period. Towards the end of the company’s history, before the sellout to Mattel, they also had beautiful, full-color, hardcover non-fiction books featuring images from museum collections to educate children on the historical background of each character’s time period. They made them through the early Mattel days when Kaya was released in 2002 but none of the more recent characters have those books. Each book ended with a peek into the future to see the impact real people like the characters had on their future (Indian wars, the 19th amendment, etc.). I’m fortunate to have grown up in that era. I can now use those materials to teach history to my nieces and their dolls. Now they have “Real Stories from My Time” cheaply produced paperback books that attempt to link the characters to important events in history. They also have biographies of famous women as girls, similar to the “Who Is/Was” series.

    Many historic house museums and historical societies have also used those materials to put together historical programming for girls and their dolls. My nieces and I have enjoyed lawn parties at a local museum and as a museum educator, I led our museum’s American Girl tour.


    1. I have seen a few episodes of Liberty’s Kids growing up. I also had two American Girl dolls that I still have to this day. The two dolls I have are Kirsten and Molly. I do have another American Girl doll that I do not see often anymore, and her name is Lindsey; I am not sure if you have heard of this doll but she was one of the modern American Girl dolls. My sisters also had two each; one of my sisters has Felicity and Josephina and my second sister has Addy and Samantha. I loved reading each of their stories. I was born in 1988 and grew up in the 1990s so I did not know of Pleasant Company before it became known as the American Girl company. I am so glad your nieces are now enjoying the American Girl dolls and that there are programs and tours using the dolls as a way to teach history. Which museum do you work in? I would love to learn more about it.


      1. Yes I know Lindsey. She was the first Girl of the Year. She’s a cutie. I’ve only seen two in real life not on display in the stores.

        I currently work at Slater Mill, part of the Blackstone Valley National Historic Park. It’s the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution-the first successful, water powered, cotton spinning mill in the United States built in 1793. I enjoy working there and hopefully inspiring young minds. We make a point to teach the school groups and young visitors about child labor. Their eyes always get wide when they realize kids had to work 12 hours a day, 6 days a week-like Nellie in the American Girl Samantha books.


      2. I love Slater Mill! I grew up not fifteen minutes away from Woonsocket. I am glad you enjoy working there as well as inspiring young minds. Using Nellie’s stories is a wonderful way for young visitors to understand and connect with the children of the past, and hopefully be grateful for the lives they lead now.


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