Publication Date

December 15, 2022

Perspectives Section


AHA Topic

Teaching & Learning


  • World


Economic, Public History

Anyone who has tried to teach a young child knows that getting their attention and keeping it can be a struggle, especially in a museum, where learning is often quiet and fatigue can set in quickly. Sometimes, the best way is to surprise them. Really BIG Money, our new exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, is full of attention-grabbing, unexpected monetary objects. Carefully designed to prioritize the needs of young learners, the exhibit captures children’s attention and seeks to engage them in fun and complex learning about world cultures and financial literacy. We believe our approach to this exhibition can serve as a model both for developing history exhibitions designed for children and for engaging in transdisciplinary collaboration.

Photo of four posters of the exhibit.

The first thing young learners encounter in the Really BIG Money exhibit is a question: What can money teach us about our world? Courtesy National Museum of American History

Building something for young learners presents different types of challenges, ranging from the reading level of the text to the design of the room and the height of the exhibition cases. As curators and historians, Ellen R. Feingold and Sarah Weicksel envisioned a group of objects that might do this work. We quickly realized, however, that to attract our target audience, we needed to make the exhibit relevant to classroom learning. And to do that, we needed to collaborate with our colleagues in museum education, whose complementary skill sets would ensure that the exhibit engaged children and aligned with specific social studies learning standards.

As a team, we took a different approach to collaboration than is typical in a history museum. History exhibitions have often been driven by a specific curatorial vision, with curators and historians choosing the objects and drafting the exhibition text. Curation, education, design and fabrication, and collections management are often treated as related but separate parts of the creative process, frequently occurring within siloed departments. Learning goals and strategies for audience engagement, for example, are often added to the exhibit development process after a curatorial foundation has been laid.

Many history museum professionals desire a more inclusive approach and would prefer to break away from institutional processes and culture. But doing so requires a willingness to let go of decades-old and deeply entrenched ideas about professional roles and responsibilities. Ellen and Sarah found museum educators Abby Pfisterer and Orlando R. Serrano Jr. to be enthusiastic partners. Together, we piloted a transdisciplinary way for educators, curators, and historians to work together from the earliest stages of exhibition development to center learning goals and audience needs for young visitors in the curatorial process.

To attract our target audience, we needed to make the exhibit relevant to classroom learning.

Building a new approach meant having equal seats at the table starting with our first meeting, as well as shedding discipline-based notions of ownership over the exhibit’s pieces. This enabled us to benefit from one another’s expertise in open and responsive conversations. Ellen and Sarah were able to explain the historical pathways objects could open up and to identify the lessons they might teach, while Abby and Orlando brought their knowledge of how young learners would approach these objects and the methods through which an educator could engage them to reach a learning goal. For example, Ellen and Sarah explained that the tail feathers of the resplendent quetzal bird offer powerful insights into historical Mayan and Aztec culture and contemporary Guatemalan national identity. But Abby and Orlando suggested that, upon learning tail feathers must be plucked to be used as currency, a child’s first question would be not necessarily about the purchasing power of those feathers but rather about the well-being of the bird. As a result, we worked together to address natural child concerns and questions before digging into historical interpretation. Building these kinds of connections between our professional skill sets developed more comprehensive methods through which objects could communicate diverse histories for young visitors. And despite our initial concerns that this form of collaboration might slow the development process, we found precisely the opposite—the project both progressed quickly and yielded more creative ideas, greater enthusiasm, and a stronger collaborative ethos.

In building the exhibition’s framework, our team agreed that we needed to start with the curriculum—but for which age group? Poring over both local and national curriculum standards, we saw that economics and money are first significantly incorporated into social studies lessons in the third through fifth grades. Not only relevant to building financial literacy, these topics are part of how teachers engage children with world cultures. We therefore decided to create an exhibition space specifically for students in these grades. With our teammate, interpretive specialist Julia Garcia, we discussed the importance of interactive experiences for this age group. “Everyone,” she explained, “especially children, learn more by doing and making their own meaning.” With this in mind, we decided to dedicate half the gallery to interactive experiences and half to more traditional, but still kid-friendly, display cases. All interactives would be designed to reinforce the concepts and ideas presented through objects in the cases.

Out of 1.6 million objects in the National Numismatic Collection, we chose a handful of objects that are big in size, quantity, and denomination that help young learners think about the world around them. We selected four really big monetary objects—a quetzal from Guatemala, a copper plate from Sweden, an ancient Roman coin hoard, and a large stone ring, or rai, from the Micronesian island of Yap. We aligned each of these objects with one of the four key concepts in the third-to-fifth-grade curricula: communities and cultures, natural resources, political leaders, and exchange. An additional section focuses on the relationship between value and context through an exploration of hyperinflation.

Based on broad feedback, we revised labels to ensure that they were accessible to our target audiences. The in-case labels are written to directly engage young learners through a repetitive question—how big is this money?—to encourage close looking through a piece of easily accessible information. Additional text outside the cases connects each object to a concept and is complemented by contextual images and three-dimensional tactile features. For example, when children enter the gallery, they are greeted by a quetzal collected in Guatemala and taxidermized in the 1920s. With iridescent tail feathers measuring 21 inches long that were once used as a form of currency in Aztec and Mayan communities, the quetzal continues to hold a place of importance in Guatemalan national culture. Quetzal is the word for Guatemala’s national currency, and images of the bird are featured on the country’s coins and banknotes. Visitors encounter a page from a 16th-century codex depicting quetzal feathers as a form of payment as well as ornamentation. They can also touch a three-dimensional reproduction of a 20 quetzales coin from 1926.

Having explored four key objects and themes, the exhibit then teaches the foundational concept that the value of money depends on its context. We teach this through objects and photographs that represent hyperinflation, including origami swans crafted from recent Venezuelan banknotes and a 20 trillion mark note from post–World War I Germany. Banknotes like these can be shocking to see and might initially seem valuable, but such astronomically high numbers on money are often clues that a country and its people are experiencing extreme hardship. Here, the exhibit also aims to help visitors build empathy toward people and places that seem unfamiliar at first glance.

Learning goals need to be considered at the earliest stages of new projects.

The final section of the exhibition promotes learning through play and interaction. Young visitors can see their own faces on money through customized mirrors, measure themselves against a five-foot, seven-inch liganda (a Congolese iron blade), and play a touchless Match the Money clue-based game featuring an animated quetzal bird on a magical journey through world banknotes. In these ways, the exhibition combines formal learning concepts with an informal learning environment and eye-catching artifacts with which young learners can think creatively and critically.

On the surface, we have finished developing the exhibit—it is installed, open to the public, and viewed by hundreds of visitors every day—but the experience of creating it continues to reshape how each of us approaches our daily work. We have delighted in watching young learners visit Really BIG Money and their joy in discovering that it is a kid-friendly space that looks and feels like it is meant for them. Observing the effectiveness of our approach has led each of us to advocate for learning goals to be considered at the earliest stages of new projects, ranging from the new exhibits on which Ellen, Orlando, and Abby are working, to Sarah’s conceptualization of the AHA’s Teaching Things: Material Culture in the History Classroom project. It is not enough to develop an exhibit, write a book, or design a lesson plan and assume that it will meet our audience’s needs. Considering who the audience is and asking what they already know and do not understand allows us to meet them where they are and lead them toward new historical knowledge.

In sharing our experience of reimagining the process of creating a history exhibition, we hope that other historians, curators, and educators will feel emboldened to take a chance—to reorganize and redistribute duties, authorship, and exhibit development; to begin with an audience, rather than a narrative directed by a set of objects; and to create a team who can meet the needs of that audience. When we welcome new colleagues and skill sets, both within and outside our own institutions, really big things can happen.

Ellen R. Feingold is curator of the National Numismatic Collection at the National Museum of American History. Abby Pfisterer is director of PK–12 education at the Wisconsin Historical Society. Orlando R. Serrano Jr. is manager of youth and teacher programs at the National Museum of American History. Sarah Weicksel is director of research and publications at the AHA and research associate at the National Museum of American History.

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