by Brian Alexander, Curator Martin-Mitchell Museum
Naperville Park District's Martin-Mitchell Museum offers the public more than an historically educational touring attraction. The philosophy of the museum, as explained by park district executive director Walter Johnson, is to "create community interest and develop the potential of the museum as an educational and recreational institution by providing community and school programs for all age groups."
The museum is a restored Victorian era mansion built in 1883 and willed to the City of Naperville in the estate of Caroline Martin-Mitchell. The park district leases the buildings (which includes the home and a carriage house) and the grounds from the city and operates the museum through the park district's museum tax levy.
A variety of classes, activities, trips and special events are sponsored by the museum. The most popular among these is the "Victorian Live-In", a program designed to simulate the day to day activities of a typical Victorian era child of the 1880's. The Live-In is structured for fourth grade students from community schools and is patterned after a similar program sponsored by Old Economy Village in Pennsylvania.
The point of the Live-In program is for students to learn about and understand the past by means of direct experience. Fourth grade students, chosen because they are old enough to understand what they are studying and young enough to enjoy it, spend one half-day at the museum re-enacting a day in the life of a Victorian child.
After a brief orientation just prior to beginning their simulation of the past, students are divided into four groups-two groups of boys and two groups of girls with approximately four to six students in each group. Martin-Mitchell Museum provides aprons for the girls and old fashioned work hats for the boys in order that the experience might seem more realistic. Most of the children
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wear appropriate clothing for the occasion—flannel shirts and jeans for the boys and long dresses and bonnets for the girls.
The fourth graders are told that Victorian children are quiet and orderly, mannerly, hard working and respectful. And in the spirit of the day, most of the children perform their tasks in such a manner.
Museum staff group leaders, portraying household servants and workers, begin assigning appropriate chores to their groups, and their chores are coordinated to make clear the purpose of each. For example, boys gather and chop wood in order to build a fire that will be used to boil water so that the girls will be able to wash clothes. Boys also work in the garden, polish saddles, beat rugs, shred cabbage for coleslaw, and work in the carriage house. Girls work in the kitchen to prepare lunch for the entire group; slicing bread, cutting ham, making homemade whipped cream and lemonade. Lunch consists of ham, bread, cucumber sandwiches, pound cake, parsley butter, onions, lemonade, apples, and coleslaw. Girls also do various household chores such as cleaning lamp chimneys, dusting, furniture polishing and embroidery.
Chores are done in the Victorian fashion. Boys clean a copper boiler with a homemade solution consisting of lemons and salt, and the girls wash the clothes on a washboard and hang them out to dry. Children become well aware that old methods are interesting and fun to learn about, but comment that they would "hate to do things that way every day."
Lunch is served cafeteria style by the girls in the museum's dining room, and everyone then eats outside on picnic tables. After lunch has been eaten and the dishes have been cleaned and tools put away, students participate in recreational activities of the Victorian period—croquette for the girls, and horseshoes for the boys.
The recreation period ends the program at the museum, but groups usually spend the remainder of the day in their classrooms discussing and writing about their Live-In experiences.
The museum has tried to make the Live-In as authentic and educational as possible. In an effort to prepare students for the program, the staff has prepared what it calls a "Victorian Live-In Study Kit." The kit is a study aid for use by both students and teachers. It consists of various representative artifacts of the period such as clothing, a writing slate, a hair wreath, postcards, photographs from the era and more. It also contains a bibliography on the Victorian era for teachers and students and handouts on history, lifestyle, foods, literature, recreation, etiquette, and many other aspects of life in the 1880's. The class is allowed to keep this kit for about a week, depending on the date of the next Live-In.
Following classroom preparation, students are sent a formal invitation to visit the museum. Parents receive a letter explaining the program and asking them to dress their children appropriately. There is a $1.50 participation fee for each student which covers the cost of the lunch. The cost is kept at a minimum in order that many children might have the opportunity to participate.
The program idea was initiated in the Fall of 1975 and has proven to be so popular that many classes are unable to participate. If all interested classes had participated in the program during the past school year, the Live-In would have consumed nearly all of the museum's staff time during that period. Because of this problem, a questionnaire application was devised to use as a basis for narrowing the field.
Classes are sought that will coordinate school work with their visit, and will use the experience for education as well as fun. Each teacher was asked to what length he or she would go to prepare students for the visit; if the Live-In would relate to any course of study in which students were then engaged; and what the teachers felt their classes would gain from having participated in the Live-In program.
As a result of first year experience with the program, the staff, teachers, and students are satisfied and enthusiastic about the experience, and many positive responses have been received concerning the Live-In.
The development of this program and many others has made the Naperville Park District Martin-Mitchell Museum a very active part of the Naperville community, and illustrates that a museum can be both an educational and recreational facility.
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