Almost exactly one year ago, we re-opened the General Store. If you haven’t visited us in a long time, the space may surprise you. Just about everything is touchable, and there are plenty of activities and roles for visitors to play. You can shop, weigh beans, run a cash register, play checkers, write or sort mail, wrap packages–and one of our favorites–sweep and dust. (Is it wrong that we get such joy out of letting visitors help us clean?)
Of course, whenever we do something new, there’s a familiar fear. Will this work? Will visitors understand? Are we setting ourselves up to be destroyed by a herd of 4th grade boys? Will they learn anything?
Though we haven’t done any formal studies on the success of the store, there are plenty of anecdotes indicating that we’re doing okay. Families will spend 30-45 minutes in the store–a length of time almost unheard of in museum exhibits. Returning visitors sometimes head to the store first, with little ones telling their friends what they can do or mentioning that they didn’t get a chance to do everything on their last visit. Visitors of all ages will comment on the familiar brands on the shelves. Honestly, it’s become one of my favorite spots in the Village, and it’s a project we’re all really proud of.
Earlier this week, I was doing a seasonal freshening up on the space–taking notes of what needs to be replaced or reprinted. I noticed a lot of mail in our postal boxes, which wasn’t a huge shock since we supply some pre-written cards for visitors to sort. We had talked off and on about letting visitors write their own mail, but there was some concern about wayward pencils, inappropriate messages, and whether or not we’d be able to keep the space well-stocked. Plus, there wasn’t a fabulous place for visitors to write. But as I dug into the boxes, I was amazed to discover two things:
1. Visitors were finding paper and leaving notes.
2. A school had written letters to the characters named on the PO Boxes as a pre-visit activity.
Here’s the thing that really thrilled me about the school: though we list letter writing as a pre-visit activity, we don’t give a list of names. And the school hadn’t just written to the “big” names at the Village, like Nip and Tuck, Mrs. Kennedy and Mrs. Blum. They had also written to some of the more obscure names we included on the PO Boxes; names like Dr. and Mrs. Hall (who owned the Shotgun House), Minerva Miller (youngest daughter of the man who built Millermore), and my personal favorite, Mrs. Cluck the Chicken. So, the teachers went above and beyond the call of duty in preparing their kids for the field trip. Someone had come to the Village and made note of the names and brought it back to the classroom. That makes me really, really happy and excited.
As for the other notes left in the boxes, well, they seemed to indicate that people understand what we’re trying to do in that space. I’ll share a few of my favorite letters, from both the students and visitors. See what you think.
Today I went to my time machine and went to the year 2011. They have this new fangled contraption called the iPhone. You can go on a gizmo called Facebook and look at people. I also bought cheese.
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I can’t wait to be able to see how the settlers lived on our field trip. I am looking forward to seeing the food they had to eat. Maybe you can teach us some other cool stuff.
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I wish I could live in this century. It looks amazing!
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Help. I’m in the 19th Century.
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I’m so excited to be able to come here and learn new things. It must be really cool to live like the people in the 18 hundreds. How do you survive with no electricity? I have a lot of questions so I’ll ask them to you when I get to the Dallas Heritage Village. How do you dress or sleep?
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Dear Mrs. Cluck the Chicken,
I can’t wait for you to write. Are you a real chicken? I don’t think you are. How did you survive? I think it will be so cool to see your Village.
This is the kind of stuff that definitely makes a museum educator’s day.
When you visit us this spring, there will be plenty of writing materials ready to go in the General Store. And you’ll know that if you leave us a note, we’ll be reading it and enjoying it.
PS And for those wondering, I only found one “inappropriate” note. It was a letter to Santa. So really the only thing inappropriate about that note is that our postal office doesn’t have direct access to the North Pole.