History Just for Kids

by: Brian Bushard

photography by: Nicole Harnishfeger

Past the sperm-whale skeleton, beyond the whaleboat and through the candle factory is the Nantucket Whaling Museum’s new Children’s Discovery Center. Two years ago, the room was the Nantucket Historical Association’s gift shop. Now it’s a scaled-down model of a 19th century downtown Nantucket, from a marketplace to a harbormaster’s building and a model of the old Nantucket Central Railroad.

The point – pre-coronavirus – was to allow children to interact with the entire space. There’s an element of learning that goes beyond reading excerpts from a logbook or looking at a portrait or a whale skeleton, NHA education chair Mary Lacoursiere said.

“There’s a heavy emphasis on education at the discovery center, where parents allow their kids to be more like kids instead of in the rest of the museum, which is more like a library,” she said.

This summer, however, while sanitation and social-distancing protocols are in place to prevent the spread of coronavirus, the NHA has had to divert from its original plan for the discovery center, which was completed earlier this spring. The idea now is to reduce the interaction wherever possible, and introduce new educational materials instead.

Instead of taking out a picture book on whaling or life on Nantucket that may have been read by dozens of others, now children have the opportunity to pick up an individual craft kit to keep, with activities ranging from weaving to knot-tying and scrimshaw-decorating.

The kid-sized market and an old-fashioned hearth have items behind plexiglass, out of reach. Wooden train tracks and trains can be sanitized after every use.

“The point is to make the museum an interactive space for families, and the coronavirus has forced us back to that old-fashioned style of presenting, which is look, don’t touch,” NHA executive director James Russell said. “With the discovery center, we want you to look and experiment yourself, take the map of Nantucket and move it around, play with it and not be restricted to constructs. That’s what’s really frustrating about this virus, you lose the interaction.

“An adult looks at a mural for its aesthetic beauty, but a child might look at it and say they want to play with it,” he added. “This room is such a tease. It’s a dollhouse with plexiglass around it.”

NHA historic-sites manager Karl Wietzel had been planning programming for kids and families inside the discovery center around that philosophy of interaction. If a child can participate in a game or craft, he said, then they have the opportunity to use their imagination in a way that’s often more creative than just looking at a portrait or an exhibit.

It’s the same idea behind the craft kits now offered to kids inside the museum.

“The idea is that we’re trying to encourage a kinetic learning experience because we understand that participating and having a role and using your imagination is as important as reading something or watching something,” Wietzel said.

“You need that participatory element, and even though we can’t use the space as we originally conceived it, things like these take-home kits are things we probably would not have handed out had it not been for the pandemic. We’re still providing something that has the same spirit in mind.”

Behind the new model of the harbormaster’s building is a door leading outside, where Russell is planning to install additional children’s activities. On one side will be an interactive bathymetric map of Nantucket Harbor and the Atlantic Ocean, showing the depth of the water. On another side will be a 20-foot inflatable sperm whale.

It’s just one more space for kids and families to enter in order to separate people as much as possible, he said. There’s still an element of interaction, but it comes with sanitation and spacing.

Next to the new entrance to the discovery center, which depicts whales, trains, whalers, crabs, shells and turtles, is a table with hand sanitizer and cleaning wipes. Keeping the museum open during the pandemic requires adjustments, Russell said, and extra sanitation and social distancing are necessary parts of that.

“The touch component, which it was very heavily oriented toward, we had to completely curtail and that was completely frustrating,” Russell said. “But we have to think beyond the coronavirus. As we look at this space we have to make the assumption the coronavirus is not here forever. We wouldn’t be committed to this space if we can’t provide this touch space for years to come.”

But there’s still a great deal of educational value to the discovery center, he said. Children and adults can still learn about Nantucket’s history by walking beside the 30-foot model train, or looking at old-fashioned housewares sold at the model market, called “Sarg’s Curiosity Shop.”

To Wietzel, adjusting means continuing to provide an educational and interactive experience inside the museum, even if kids aren’t touching the same materials. Lacoursiere added the pandemic has created an opportunity for the NHA to expand its take-home kits and activities for kids. There’s value to that, too, she said.

“This is creating a string of activities and challenges drawing people to the museum. It’s more of a family experience than just looking at objects,” Mary Lacoursiere said.

“I think we give them an experience. It’s not the same experience, but it’s still an experience worth having.” ///

Brian Bushard is a staff writer at The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821.