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Backstage at the museum

Loyal readers of our blog are surely familiar with the museum's theater programs, especially Join the Student Sit-Ins. This presentation teaches the methods of nonviolence used in civil rights-era protests, including the sit-ins at the Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, a four seat portion of which is now on display in the museum. Past blog posts have considered how these programs present history for the public (“When History Comes to Life”) and about related programs previously offered about the lunch counter (“A Teachers Perspective on the Greensboro Sit-Ins”). But have you ever wondered how these programs came to be? In today’s post, we want to take you backstage to meet one of the stars of “Join the Student Sit-Ins” and learn more about the process of developing a museum theater presentation.

Student Sit-in
Xavier Carnegie performing in Join the Student Sit-Ins

We interviewed Xavier Carnegie—the museum’s Creative Director for theater programs and one of the lead actors for the “Join the Student Sit-Ins” program—as part of our “Meet Our Museum” podcast series. You may have read about “Meet Our Museum” in a previous blog post (“Have You Met Our Museum?”). While no longer a public program, it is now a podcast series, which, by the way, was an idea put forward by one of you, a blog reader! A new podcast is produced each month; each program lasts approximately 15-30 minutes and is designed for a middle school audience, but is appropriate for everyone (past podcasts have examined the history of lasers and the development of the electric guitar, among other topics).

In an effort to help students understand the practical side of research in everyday life and better comprehend the jobs that make up the museum experience, we asked Xavier a few questions about his work here, where he finds the information to create his performances, and how he draws an audience into the story of history.

Protest by ministers
“Protest by Ministers,” April 14, 1960. New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection. Library of Congress.

Xavier explained that after four years at the museum he is still reading and learning more about the civil rights movement. He noted, to do the job well, “you’ve got to read as much as you can. I’m learning something new at least every other day about the sit-ins—new names, new things that happened. You want to do that because people will ask questions…Some things we don’t know, some things are very, very hard for us to figure out, but I want to go that extra mile to figure those things out as much as I can, because these are things people really want to know and really want to ask….It’s a lot of work and it never ends…but that’s what helps the program grow and stay fresh.”

To help the audience understand the period on a more personal, emotional level, Xavier draws on video footage from the era and his experiences meeting with participants in the movement. As he noted, “you can really see the passion [the sit-in participants] have. At the end of the day, these people were really putting their well being on the line for the good of the country—and what does that look like? How did they feel? And these are the things that are important for us to hit, both as an historian and as an actor.”

Listen to Podcast

In this podcast, you’ll hear about these issues, and you can find discussion questions in the teachers guide. A few ideas for students to consider based on the conversation:
-What does nonviolence mean to you? 
-Why do you think the museum would choose to use theater as a way of presenting the story of an artifact? 
-If you were asked to dramatize a moment in American history, what would it be and why?

In addition to the podcast and discussion guide, you can find a video of this performance online, along with its own teachers guide. For teachers participating in National History Day who have students interested in performance, or who are organizing an in-class research assignment and want to encourage students to create a performance of their own, we hope these resources will provide a little inspiration and motivation. You can find additional guidelines on creating a National History Day theater performance here. And stay tuned for future theater programs and podcasts from us—there’s much more to come!

Naomi Coquillon is an education specialist in the Department of Education and Interpretation at the National Museum of American History.