Showcasing young historians

At the museum, we aim to bring history alive for visitors every day. This Wednesday the museum will host 19 finalists from the Kenneth E. Behring National History Day Contest to showcase their efforts at bringing history alive.

Each year, more than a half a million students participate in the National History Day contest. Students choose and research a historical topic based on a theme and present their work in original papers, Web sites, exhibits, performances, and documentaries. The Museum hosts twelve state-winning exhibitors from the national competition who are being evaluated at the national competition this week at the University of Maryland at College Park.

National_history_dayNational History Day, 2005.

I am nostalgic thinking about my own experiences as a National History participant. I chose to create documentaries for my projects and remember fondly the many hours I spent in the public library and in front of my computer piecing them together. For my documentary titled “Jacob Riis: Taking a Stand for the Other Half,” striking the perfect balance between the journalist’s iconic photographs, a griping narrative and compelling music accompaniment was a challenge. I strived to combine the factors to create an engaging and moving experience for the viewer.

It is easy to see the parallels between the work of the museum and that of these young historians. Here at the museum, curators collect objects and convey their stories through exhibitions that educate, excite, and entertain the visitor. Participants in National History Day work through a similar process, using primary and secondary sources to research a historical topic of interest to them and presenting their findings creatively.

National History Day is an incredibly rewarding opportunity for middle school and high school students. Not only do they learn valuable skills about research analysis, synthesis, and presentation, but they also see first hand that history is a living, breathing subject with room for creativity and exploration. Participants take enormous pride in their work and gain confidence in discussing and sharing their knowledge with peers.

As a new intern, I see that the museum also faces many of the challenges of a National History Day participant. How do you reduce all of your historical research into text concise enough to fit and still coherent enough to tell a story? How do you find and convey the historical significance of your topic? How do you balance hard history facts with appealing design elements? How can you capture all members of your audience and provide them with an engaging experience?

These are difficult questions at any level. Yet the struggle to answer them is what differentiates a museum exhibition and a winning National History Day project from an average text book or history lecture. They integrate research with storytelling, information with visual design, education with excitement, to create an optimal historical experience for the audience – they bring history alive.

Allison Scharfstein is an intern in the Office of Public Programs at the National Museum of American History.