Family Tours: A Pandemic Twist on Museum Learning
Author: Rachel Gibson, Vice President of Operations and Director of Education
No museum is complete without a vibrant Education Department. An animated educator leading an excited group of school children across the front lawn has been a part of the Belle Meade experience for decades. Many life-long Nashvillians have fond memories of their third grade tour of the Mansion, followed by making tin punch candle holders; they often tell us about it when they chaperone their children (and even grandchildren!) on their field trips. Over the years, the Education Department has added many wonderful experiences for children visiting our site – from field trips and scout programs to Homeschool History Club and community events, like our annual Trick or Treat.
But when the events of 2020 rendered traditional large scale field trips and special events obsolete, we needed a creative and forward-thinking solution. But the COVID-19 pandemic wasn’t our only challenge. At virtually the same time that the Education Department was navigating reopening without any student group reservations, the renewed force of the Black Lives Matter movement encouraged more Americans to think critically about race and the legacy of slavery in our country.
As soon as our site reopened last June, we received many requests from families wanting to bring their children on Belle Meade’s signature Journey to Jubilee tour. But due to the nature of this tour it is intended for adults and teens, both in terms of its pace and structure. While the Journey to Jubilee tour wasn’t ideal for children, we did have a program that was: a traditional field trip for school groups, designed specifically to teach children about slavery. For our education team, it was an easy decision to modify the field trip program as a tour for families.
The first Family Tour, “Stories of Slavery and Freedom,” proved to meet a need in the community. Reviews submitted showed us we were onto something great: “This tour was an absolutely amazing experience for our family (2 adults with kids ages 9 and 10)…The tour experience was extremely educational for all of us.” As word continued to spread through the community about our new experience for family learning, we were honored when the tour was featured in Your Wiliamson’s September issue.
Motivated by the solution that the “Stories of Slavery and Freedom” Family Tour offered to multiple challenges, beginning in September, we broadened our scope and adapted our four other standard field trips to create a full slate of Family Programs at Belle Meade. The variety of Family Tours offered again proved successful, as our dates were often sold out and we were proud to be nominated for an Award of Excellence in Educational Programming with the Tennessee Association of Museums. (We’ll let you know if we win!)
At first, adapting to smaller family tours seemed like a stop-gap measure, a way to wait out the pandemic. However, in only a few months, the immense value in family tours became evident. Whereas our traditional school field trips used to accommodate up to 400 students at once, the “new normal” of 2020 meant that family tours were limited to 10-15 total participants. With such a small capacity, the tours rarely had more than 3 families at a time. These semi-private tours welcomed and encouraged everyone – from toddlers to grandparents – to participate, ask questions, and learn. Family Tours not only offered our community something new to do in 2020, but they presented the unique opportunity for multi-generational learning. We found that with smaller numbers, there is more time for questions. There is opportunity for reflection. There are chances for parents and children to talk and learn with each other in a way that is unique to the museum setting.
Considering how effective and well-received Family Tours were in 2020, we are excited to announce that this program is not over! We will continue to offer Family Tours for our community now and in the future. If you haven’t yet had the opportunity to come along on one of our Family Tours, let us tell you what to expect.
The tours begin with a 20-40 minute guided lesson. Our method of teaching includes lots of question-asking and answering, and relatable stories. We even sneak in some critical thinking, but we promise you won’t be bored! In fact, you’ll be surprised at how fun learning can be! The guided lessons take place in a variety of locations on our site. For example, the “Frontier Families” tour takes you in an 1807 frontier cabin, while “Growing Up in the Gilded Age” shows you the inside of the Belle Meade Mansion for a look at life in the late Victorian era. Following the guided lesson, families are invited into our classroom for a selection of themed activities, hands-on learning experiences, and crafts. As children stay busy with crafts, parents and accompanying adults have the opportunity to ask one-on-one questions to follow up from the tour, while the open-ended nature of the hands-on activities allows for an element of self-directed learning.
We are so proud that we were able to meet local families where they were in 2020: isolated, missing out on enrichment, and concerned about safety. But we are even more excited to meet you where you are in 2021: hopeful and looking forward to more family outings.