Story and photos by Emily Toadvine
Reprinted with permission from the November 28, 2004, Danville Advocate Messenger
FRANKFORT, Ky.—The Kentucky History Center was a like a big playground for the Woodlawn Elementary School fourth-graders who recently took a tour.
They may not have realized they were learning about the state’s history as they moved through the exhibits, oohing and aahing over the life-like mannequins. Because it was fun to act like they were leading the congregation in song, they stood at the front pews in an African American Methodist Episcopal Church that was set up to tell the story of Civil Rights. For the boys interested in cars, they got to see not one, but three perfectly-restored vehicles from decades ago.
In a special exhibit on the Kentucky River, the children picked up black telephones like the pay phones of long ago and listened to recordings of people talking about the devastation of floods.
“They keep talking about there’s dead fish in their house,” said Nathan Stevens as he listened to one of the recordings.
Of the many displays, Ann Clay Ross rated the mannequins as the museum’s best feature.
“The people were scary, especially the people in the coal mine who moved and blinked.”
At the end of the tour, it was a plain, old peacock feather that held sway over the group. At the price of $1, it was one of the most affordable items in the gift shop and the feathers were swiftly snatched up. They wound up on the tips of noses as several fourth-graders attempted to balance them.
“Was this something they suggested in the gift shop?” I wanted to know.
“No,” they told me.
It was just the 9- and 10-year old thing to do.
I’m not sure of the peacock feather’s connection to Kentucky, but the children learned a lot as they moved through their huge playground. It’s not uncommon to cater to these small fry, according to their guide Annie Denny, who lives in Mercer County. Some days she has as many as 250 schoolchildren.
She even knew one of these children, having played the role of mother to Miles Littlefield in Wedt T. Hill Community Theatre’s production of “A Christmas Story.”
Before the children began their tour, Denny took them into a conference room to talk to them about the way the museum is arranged. The History Center museum’s $2.8 million permanent exhibit, “A Kentucky Journey,” uses a mixture of more than 3,000 historic artifacts, sights, and sounds.
“It’s like a big, old time machine,” she told them as they helped her with the placement of signs about a timeline. The museum is divided into: first Kentuckians, 10,000 B.C. to 1750; the Kentucky frontier, 1750-1800; the antebellum age, 1800-1860; war and aftermath, 1850-1875; continuity and change, 1875-1900; the new century, 1900-1930; Depression and war, 1930-1950; and many sides of Kentucky, 1950-today.
Some of the children received an object from each of the time periods and were asked to link it to the correct era. A few of the answers brought smiles to the faces of the parents who acted as chaperones. For a Federal soldier’s hat, a child answered that it was from the “blue” army and another one clarified, the Yankees. When asked about the reason behind the Depression, a girl said it was because it made the people depressed.
One girl was given a Barbie and asked to compare it to the doll the Kentucky settlers made by cutting off a bed post.
When asked if they could identify a TV tray, several of the children thought it was a surgery tray. One child said it was so “you won’t get in trouble.” Denny talked about the advent of television.
“TV changed a lot of things. It told us that we wanted G.I. Joes and Barbies in the ‘60s,” Denny said.
After taking the tour, two of the teachers, Lisa Adams and Mary Lynch, noted that the fourth-graders have focused on pioneer life.
“We’ve studied the early explorers and how they came through the Cumberland Gap and this will enhance what we’ve studied so far,” said Lynch, who noted that she liked the Hall of Governors that has portraits of the state’s leaders and information about them.
Adams said she is glad the museum had a replica of a cabin because the children are working on making their own cabins.
“The replica and artifacts showed their way of life,” Adams said.
One of the students, Megan Von, said she already had started her project and knew some of the materials she planned to use. They probably weren’t found anywhere in the museum.
“I’m going to make the chimneys out of marshmallows,” she said.
The Kentucky Historical Society, since 1836, has provided connections to the past, perspective on the present, and inspiration for the future. KHS operates the Old State Capitol, Kentucky Military History Museum and its five-year-old headquarters, the Kentucky History Center. Since 1999, the thirty-million-dollar History Center has welcomed almost one million visitors. For more information about the Kentucky Historical Society and its programs, visit the Web at http://history.ky.gov or call (502) 564-1792.