Celebrating National History Day at the museum

Students at the hands-on history carts.

On an evening earlier this month, the museum came alive with the bustle of 5,414 National History Day participants and their proud family members and teachers. As a veteran of the program myself, I had the opportunity not only to relive the experience—though admittedly from the vantage point of an intern at the museum—but to also see how it has evolved since I first participated seven years ago.

National History Day (NHD) is an annual competition for middle and high school students in which participants research a historical topic related to the annual theme and present their conclusions as a paper, performance, documentary, website, or an exhibit. The final stage of a series of contests takes place during a five-day event at the University of Maryland, College Park. This year, a few students showcased their work for an afternoon at the museum, and all participants were invited to tour the museum for an exclusive, after-hours visit. 

Students pose with George Washington.

When I participated in NHD, my peers and I did not have the opportunity to display our exhibits at such a prestigious institution, nor did we have the privilege of an evening at the museum. But the fundamentals had clearly withstood the test of time: the students, hailing from all over the country, came together for five days to showcase their hard work and share their passion for history.

 As I observed the night events on June 15, I saw students actively engaging with historic theater programs, unabashedly approaching the hands-on history carts to learn more about the objects on display, and staring, in awe, at a simple 3-D image through a century-old stereoscope. In accordance with tradition, students sought out their peers from other states to trade state buttons, and the quest for these simple items sparked conversations among students from all corners of the country; some were even generous enough to offer buttons to museum staff as tokens of their appreciation. As the students explored, parents and teachers stopped by the History Explorer table which featured the museum’s online resources for teaching and learning American history.

Museum staff display the different state buttons given to them by NHD students.

I had the opportunity to speak with many of the National History Day participants, sharing my own experiences and learning about theirs. Many were seasoned veterans of the competition; others were participating for the first time and said that they could not wait to return next year. Those who had recently graduated from high school and will not participate in next year’s competition talked about planning college majors in a broad range of fields, such as journalism, medicine, forensics, and—of course—history. They all agreed that their participation in NHD had provided them with invaluable skills in researching and public speaking. As one student from Washington put it, “History Day has taught me that history is part of everything.”

It was fascinating to see how the students’ projects interpreted this year’s NHD theme of “Debate & Diplomacy: Successes, Failures, Consequences.” Many students had personal ties to their topic, whether it focused on their local area or family connections. A group from Guam, for example, created an exhibit on the English-Only Act—which enforces the use only of the English language—because a member of the group is Chamorro and cannot speak his native tongue as a result of the legislation.

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NHD participants stand before their exhibit on women's suffrage.

This year’s National History Day is done, but the show must go on. The theme of next year’s competition is “Revolution, Reaction and Reform in History.” To prospective National History Day participants: I highly recommend that you listen to this podcast about how to develop a great NHD project, featuring interviews with museum staff who have judged at the national level in the past. 

Jessica Marine is an intern in Daily Programs at the National Museum of American History.