July 17, 2013

How I Will Help My Niece Fall in Love With History

  • By: Priya Chhaya
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A girl walks by the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C.

In two weeks I am going to be an aunt for the first time. Needless to say my family is over the moon, and while the bulk of the awesome responsibility of raising my niece falls on my sister and her husband, I know that there is one thing that only I can do: get her to love history.

For many of us that passion and interest comes from our parents dragging our younger selves to various battlefields, museums, and historic houses -- field trips that in time allowed us to hone in on our love of the past. I also know that those same trips led others to avoid these places as adults, forever scarred by seemingly endless treks across cities and landscapes.

It’s a fine line between love and hate, but one that I am certain I can navigate. Here's how.

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A boy rests in the Garden of the Gods, a nature center in Colorado.

Step 1: Space

Introduce new niece, at a young age, to public spaces and parks. She doesn’t need to be able to say Frederick Law Olmsted in order to enjoy Prospect Park or understand the nature of the Civil War as she runs down the side of the reflecting pool towards the Lincoln Memorial. She can climb the rocks at Garden of the Gods in Colorado without knowing the story of westward expansion. (Don’t worry, we’ll be sure to provide the context when she’s older).

Step 2: Place

Make connections as she grows between the sites we are visiting and the stories they tell. Make sure to include nuggets of relevance for her life today. We won’t just take the tour -- we’ll engage with the places we visit.

  • Make the run up Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg -- and tell her about how you did the same thing in high school.
  • Tell the story of her grandparents' immigration to the United States when visiting the Lower East Side Tenement Museum (and make sure to stop at Liberty Park in Jersey City where they lived when they first moved to this country).
  • Take her on a boat tour of Chicago and the visit up close to see the details. Try sketching them together, making sure to talk about when they were built and why. (Then take her to the site of her parents' first date.)


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A group of kids listens to a tour guide on a trip to the Old Mill in Calistoga, California.

Step 3: Case (as in Making the)

Introduce complexity. Talk about how history is not all about one perspective -- that each story has multiple facets. Visit the plantation homes of our founding fathers such as Mount Vernon and Monticello, and show (rather than tell) the differences between what they wrote and spoke and how they lived. Then go back to Gettysburg or even the Edmund Pettus Bridge and mark how as a country we continued to evolve.

Above all else, encourage her to ask questions. History is, after all, a lens through which we view the world. In the end, whether it is personal history, architectural history, landscape history, or [insert infinite qualifiers here] history, those questions and the answers she finds for herself will help her understand her own place in the story.

While her day job involves working with preservation professionals as an associate manager for online content at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Priya spends other waking moments musing, writing, and learning about how the public engages and embraces history.

@priyastoric

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