Layer content so that individual members of the family with their own needs and interests can find something that interests them. It can be subtle or overt. Think about various formats you can incorporate (images, objects, books, activities). That way, there's more opportunity for people to connect to something that interests them and dig deeper when desired. That said, it’s a fine balance between having content available for when appropriate and overwhelming participants with information. Let seeking further content be a choice.
Tips & Takeaways
- Layer content into your program. It can be subtle or overt. Think about various formats you can incorporate (images, objects, books, activities). That way, there's more opportunity for people to connect to something that interests them, as well as opportunities for the facilitator to highlight content that connects with diverse participants' interests.
- Think of ways to take advantage of the content you already have.
Quick & Easy To-Dos
- Add related images and/or reproductions that people can explore, ask questions about, and discuss.
- Find 3 ways to add an interesting story related to your theme and activities that will help illustrate your topic.
- Look critically at the way topics are being discussed. Does it feel oversimplified? Are there ways of finding a balance between simplicity for access and clarity and complexity for depth and authenticity? Layering content and having more information and resources will help with that.
Build upon the pre-existing experience and knowledge levels of the visitor. This makes it essential to use a palette of different approaches and also to provide a layering of material, meeting individual needs in terms of entry and exit points and ensuring the availability of different levels of information...."
-Graham Black, The Engaging Museum, 206.
Fun and learning is for everyone. Brainstorm something to interest both adult caregivers and children, as well as your occasional connoisseur. The layering can be invisible and only pointed out to those with an interest.
Layering Content: A Balancing Act
We don’t have to hit people over the head with information to get them to learn. But the more we layer in content, the more there is for enthusiasts and connoisseurs; parents and kids; and the more variety of opportunities for everyone to connect to something interesting at their level. As we know, each family member comes with his/her own pre-existing knowledge and interests, as well as a unique skill set. As Graham Black argues, this "makes it essential to...provide a layering of material, meeting individual needs...and ensuring the availability of different levels of information." 
Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire."
-William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)
The challenge is to establish an approach to presentation from which each visitor can select, as he or she prefers. Layering means individual visitors can select the depth of their exploration of a particular concept or theme."
-Graham Black, The Engaging Museum, 206.
5 Examples of Layering
Think of ways to take advantage of the content you already have: books, exhibits, images, reproduction objects, even online resources. Here are some ways we layered content into USS Constitution Museum's programs:
1. Writing with a Quill Pen - Forms and Reproduction Objects
Instead of just one document, we added multiple forms that family members can fill out with their quill pen. Each form requires a different level of reading and writing skills. Also, they each relate to a different aspect of USS Constitution's history. That way, facilitators have many opportunities to engage families in a topic of interest and relevance to them. We also included printed reproductions of completed historic forms so participants can see "the real thing."
Participants and facilitators have four forms that they can fill out and discuss.
Participants can peruse reproductions of real historic forms from Constitution's history. Additionally, we've put out reproductions of historic objects related to writing.
2. Tools of the Trade: Caulking - Images and Object Table
When we revised our caulking (waterproofing) activity, we added modern and historic images, as well as a table of reproduction artifacts and other objects to examine.
This serves to both attract visitors to the activity and offers opportunities for facilitators to continue the experience and delve deeper into the caulking process with interested participants and those who may not want to do the hands-on portion but who are interested in the history.
An historic image of prisoners in England's Coldbath Prison picking old rope into oakum for caulking.
Anything we gave kids to touch, smell, etc., we also gave to adults. It serves as an easy, passive, non-threatening way of maintain their involvement.
Next to the hands-on portion of the activity are images of a present-day shipwrights re-caulking USSConstitution, showing that this process is still essential to the life and health of the 200-year-old wooden ship. This concept often leads to a discussion about the upkeep of the Ship, the mostly-lost skills needed to repair her, and the physically arduous nature of the work. Courtesy Naval History and Heritage Command Detachment Boston.
We added a table of reproduction items as well as images adjacent to the activity to attract attention and give visitors something to explore.
3. Out Run Out Gun - Direction and Conversation Cards
In order to help reinforce the challenge of the boat-building activity in Out Run Out Gun, we included this card in each family's design kit. Rather than just state the challenge, we added in a few vocabulary words (e.g. "frigate") and likened the challenge to that faced by USS Constitution's designer, Joshua Humphreys, whom facilitators reference throughout the program.
4. Under Pressure - Placemats
Each family serves as a gun crew at their own "cannon" (black table top). They are given the equipment that represents that of a real 1812 gun crew: sponge, gun carriage, cannonball (canister lid), and cartridge (spoon for carrying Alka-Seltzer™ tablet/"powder"). We added a placemat for these items that uses existing imagery of the actual equipment on USS Constitution. This puts the firing activity into more of an historic context for families.
On the reverse side of the placemat are otherwise hidden images of an actual gun crew in battle.
The facilitator can draw upon this resource, when appropriate, to delve deeper into cannon firing, Constitution's crew, and 19th-century naval warfare.
5. Book Tables
Just by adding a small table with both adult and children's books about your program topic, you provide a resource for further exploration and also offer something that can keep a disengaged individual occupied.
A table of books related to the program topic.
"Overkill" and How To Avoid It
Keep your eye out for trying to do too much with all that fabulous content you have in your heads. It can put people off, can scare parents away, and may bore some children:
It's best not to overwhelm with information; there's a fine line between support and overkill."
-Daryl Fischer, Best Practices in Cultivating Family Audiences, 8.
"Less is more when it comes to information. To build parent confidence, we aim to strike a delicate balance between too much information and not enough information."
-Denver Art Museum, Kids & Their Grownups, 10.
The USS Constitution Museum Version of Overkill:
When we first decided to give participants to our Under Pressure program gun crew roles, we thought it would be a great idea to also provide the real-life stories of USS Constitution's real 1812 crewmembers who did the same jobs. We have done extensive research on these individuals, so crew cards, we thought, were a great way to disseminate this information and personalize the gun crew process. While that is true, here are the problems we (quickly) ran into:
- Too wordy. Parents took several minutes to read all of this to their kids (The following example is just one card. What if you had 4 people in your family?!).
- It stopped the progress of the program and inserted a speed bump that, though interesting, didn't help move the program along.
- Even the last page, which contained the text they actually needed to know to complete the activity, was too wordy and distracting.
Instead, we ended up greatly simplifying our crew cards into a one-sided index card-sized handout with the name of the job, a one-word characteristic needed for that role, and the job of that person in this Alka-Seltzer(TM) activity (not their role in 1812).
One of the new, simplified crew cards.
1. Graham Black. The Engaging Museum: Developing Museums for Visitor Involvement. London: Routledge, 2005: 206. This guide outlines various ways professionals can develop their programs, exhibits, and general museum atmosphere to best engage the public.