“So, what’s up with all those questions about treaties on columns throughout the museum?”
American Indian treaties are a topic about which visitors have a lot of interest and curiosity. Engage them in a conversation about treaties, and they will often shake their heads and say, “Oh yeah, those,” and then begin to ask questions: “Are treaties still valid?” “Do treaties give American Indians special rights?” “Aren’t treaties bad for American Indians?” “Weren’t all the treaties just broken anyway?” Starting with such foundational questions, the exhibit team that produced Nation to Nation” Treaties Between the United States and American Indian Nations is using a well-known educational strategy to attract visitors to the major new exhibition on view in Washington through fall 2018.
On the Potomac level and on the 3rd and 4th floors of the museum, selected columns have been painted “wampum purple”—a Nation to Nation design theme—festooned with the flags of Native Nations, and fitted with wooden interactives that pose and answer important questions about treaties. The purpose of these treaties stations is to pique visitors’ interest in the Nation to Nation exhibit. But their content is not just typical Q & A.
The treaties stations employ an educational technique known as “inquiry-based learning.” The idea behind this approach is to engage learners in a discovery of the content, instead of just telling them everything you want them to know. The “telling” approach is not the most effective educational strategy and often results in something my mother used to characterize as “going in one ear and coming out the other.” Inquiry-based learning begins with something that is compelling—for example, an image, a question, an object, or a combination thereof—then encourages people to explore it.
At each treaties station, visitors are engaged with a question and image or images related to treaties (above, left). Visitors then rotate the panel manually, but instead of finding the answer on the next panel, they find a new image, quotation, or excerpt from a historical document—something that requires them to think again (above, right). Visitors then rotate the mechanism to a final panel, where the answer is revealed and a more detailed explanation is offered (right).
Each of the treaties station columns has the words “Find out more in the Nation to Nation exhibit,” stenciled on it. Our hope is that more visitors will be intrigued to learn what is inside the exhibit by interacting with these important treaty questions outside the exhibit. We plan to evaluate the interactives’ effectiveness in a formal way.
So, when you visit the museum, try them out. We hope that they’ll help you build your basic knowledge about treaties and that you’ll find yourself thinking about the history of treaties and their ongoing importance before you even reach the exhibit on the 4th floor.
Then let us know what you think.
Ed Schupman is a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation of Oklahoma and works in the museum's education department supporting exhibit teams and developing resources for K–12 students and teachers.