At the Birthplace of Country Music (BCM), we believe that engaged learning in museums should be a component of every child’s experience, and those museums should be welcoming, accessible, and relevant. Whether with a school group, as individuals, or with their families, inviting young people to interact with the arts and history in museums and through outreach programs gives us opportunities to teach elements of these subjects through broad lenses in the humanities – and this in turn helps children to understand the world around them. These hands-on learning experiences give students the chance to explore and connect history to their own lives. We offer a variety of youth programs at BCM in an ongoing effort to serve the region – our school group programs, youth summer camps, free Family Fun Days, the Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion Children’s Day, and a variety of outreach programs at schools or area agencies provide opportunities for arts education that is an important component in a well-rounded education. And research into visitor engagement at cultural organizations suggests that children who visit museums or other cultural events are TWICE AS LIKELY to visit them as adults. (So take your children to experience the arts and culture at the museums, festivals, and art galleries all around us!)
Planning educational and outreach programs takes enormous amounts of time. Museum staff members develop programming for each new exhibit so that groups visiting the museum have the opportunity for a variety of experiences and so that schools can link to state standards as they plan their visit – because Bristol is located on the state lines of Virginia and Tennessee, we include two different state standards in our planning. Talented volunteer docents are trained in museum content and are ready to provide a tailored and engaging group tour for area students; our docents often gain as much from the students as the students do from their visit!
Our Pick Along Summer Camp coordinators and instructors spend numerous hours developing curriculum and activities so that summer camps provide not only a really engaging and enjoyable week, but they also nurture and develop skills in instrument playing and performance competence. These summer camp sessions are a fantastic way to introduce kids to string band music through individual and group instruction, museum-focused activities, songwriting, and arts and crafts. Campers get a chance to perform live on Radio Bristol in the museum, and some have also had the chance to produce their own short programs for broadcast. Scholarships for campers who need financial assistance are always available (we eagerly accept donations for these scholarships and to help with bus transport!) so that we are able to serve our entire community regardless of income level. By offering instrument instruction in a camp format, we have the ability to integrate learning experiences with museum exhibits and radio, facilitate lessons in history and social context for the music they are playing, and give students the opportunity to develop a social network of young musicians interested in regional string music. And, of course, the Pick Along camps are also lots of fun and filled with laughter!
Family Fun Days provide hands-on activities for kids of all ages and encourage families to bring children to the museum. These events give free entry to our Special Exhibits Gallery and often include programming that goes along with the particular exhibit that is featured in that space – from songwriting Mad Libs to a chance to play real instruments to coloring sheets. Our Family Fun Day visitors also get to create entertaining craft takeaways from various activities (and sometimes even prizes, especially after a rousing game of Banjo Bingo!).
Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion’s Children’s Day is another space for engaging families and features a variety of hands-on music-related and arts-focused activities for kids. Participants at this free event get the chance to dance and sing, play instruments, create take-home crafts, and learn about BCM and other nonprofits in the community. It’s also a chance for them to enjoy the feel of a mini-festival with some kid-focused music.
Many of our educational programs and events are geared towards giving students a short learning experience that might shape their understanding and create a desire to dig deeper, while others delve further into museum content through a longer program that helps students gain skills in history, music, writing, and critical thinking. One particularly successful program was an outreach project that museum staff provided for a youth group at the YWCA Bristol. It was developed in response to a special Museum Day Live! event on March 12, 2016, which focused on encouraging all people – and particularly women and girls of color – to explore our nation’s museums and cultural institutions. After thinking carefully about programs that fit in with this theme, we approached the YWCA Bristol TechGYRLS, a local after-school program based on a STEM-focused curriculum and geared towards supporting girls aged 9—15 who would otherwise have limited access to and experience with technology. The goal of the partnership was to give the TechGYRLS access to a new technology and the opportunity to explore the music history of their hometown in a meaningful way – this project provided an innovative STEAM educational program that connected our museum to our community by empowering the TechGYRLS to create a special radio program on Radio Bristol, our in-house working radio station. The program took a creative approach to our museum content and gave the participants a learning experience that has resulted in a strong and continuing partnership with the YWCA, enabling the museum to share its mission with a much wider audience and to engage students in an interesting way.
This project introduced the students to the museum, gave them opportunities to engage directly with radio technology and to learn more about how a radio station works, and helped them to research, write and produce a special radio program that highlighted the importance of the TechGYRLS program to them, their experiences in the museum, and the content that inspired them from our exhibits. The TechGYRLS visited the museum four times for a museum tour, to work on their radio script, to record the program, and as participants in Museum Day Live! We also went to the YWCA Bristol to give them additional coaching on their script and being “on air.” The half-hour radio program they created was played during the Museum Day Live! event at the museum, both on air and in the museum’s Performance Theater (attended by several girls and family members, along with museum visitors). For museum staff, it was a wonderful experience to work with these girls, and it was really gratifying to see them explore the museum and share their enthusiasm and learning on air.
Our goal with this program was to create a new opportunity for an underserved group in our community, while also sharing an enjoyable learning experience that would tie into that group’s needs. Not only did this partnership accomplish that, it also resulted in many of the TechGYRLS becoming advocates for our museum and for the musical heritage of our area – we have seen them as school group visitors sharing the things they learned with their friends, at our summer camp, and at special events. This program is also now saved in our archive collection for future use. By exploring our museum’s content in a new way through the TechGYRLS radio program, we were able to share our mission with a wider audience – across the radio airwaves and within our community – in an engaging way, and more importantly, provide an opportunity for tangible and creative learning to underserved local children, really highlighting the role of our museum as a community resource.
At the risk of sounding overly romantic, I’ll finish by saying that the responses of students when they engage in our programs can be rewarding and overwhelming. We see students whose first-ever visits to a museum are on a school visit to our museum, and we’ve heard local students remark about how the Birthplace of Country Music Museum makes them proud to be from somewhere “important.” That’s a significant gift to give, along with inquisitiveness, a general appreciation of the music all around us, and an understanding that history matters now and shapes how we think and live our lives. Those concepts, along with the music history of the region’s rich traditions, are some of the core values driving our educational mission – and these are the things that make our day-to-day jobs so rewarding.
Jessica Turner is the Director of the Birthplace of Country Music Museum.