The “Impress with a Quill Pen” program was always popular with families, but facilitators at the USS Constitution Museum thought it had potential for more variety, deeper content, and greater intergenerational participation. With simple changes like relocating the program, introducing new elements, and adjusting the setup, they were able to design a better intergenerational family experience.
- It’s never too late to try to improve a program, especially a good kids program that you want to make into an intergenerational one. Even if something seems to work fine now, there are probably parts that could be improved.
- Experimentation is a great thing. Keep prototyping different elements until you find something that works. Sometimes small changes make a big difference.
- Think about the whole experience. Think about what works for kids and adults. Giving tasks to each family member fosters family engagement.
- Adding variety and giving families a choice will make them feel more invested in the activity.
- Find ways to let families be creative and use their imagination.
- Take-home elements are fun! They are a reminder of a family’s visit to the museum.
- Comfort is key. Families who are comfortable are more likely to stay and engage for longer. Give them space so they don’t feel crowded.
- Context makes a big difference. Utilize the resources in your exhibits and collections to strengthen and support your program.
In the fall of 2014, as part of the Engage Families project, the USS Constitution Museum’s Learning Department decided to look at some existing facilitated programs to see how they could be improved based on the things we learned about family engagement in museums. The quill pens program, officially titled “Impress with a Quill Pen,” was developed in 2012 and has been one of our most popular drop-by programs. The main focus was giving families an opportunity to write with a goose feather quill, and to fill out a historical document called a Seaman’s Protection Certificate. Facilitators could use this document as a way to explain more about the impressment of American sailors by the British, which was one of the leading causes of the War of 1812.
The quill pens program was a fairly successful program because of the novelty of writing with something rather unfamiliar. Families enjoyed dipping the feathers into the ink and trying to write their name or draw a picture. The original setup of the program included a six-foot table in a high-traffic area on the first floor of our galleries. The facilitator would sit on one side of the table in a corner, while four to six family members could stand on the other side. They could test out writing on a piece of scrap paper, and then the facilitator would introduce the Seaman’s Protection Certificate. In 1796, Congress passed the “Act for the Relief and Protection of American Seaman” which was intended to combat the British Royal Navy’s practice of forcibly placing American sailors into service on British ships. American sailors could apply for a Seaman’s Protection Certificate, which acted like a passport – it proved they were American citizens and included a description of their physical appearance. Many of these documents survived. The USS Constitution Museum’s collection contains a few examples. For the quill pens program, each family member could fill in the blanks on his or her very own Seaman’s Protection Certificate and take it home.
The original version of the program worked well for many reasons:
- It was a simple activity that all ages could try. Writing with the quill was just challenging enough to be fun, but it wasn’t too hard. We also offered ballpoint feather pens for the younger children instead of the quill and ink. It was also just unfamiliar enough that the activity could be new for both kids and adults.
- It featured a strong historical connection by including the Seaman’s Protection Certificate and relating it to impressment. This helped us introduce a main cause of the War of 1812 programmatically.
- It provided a take-home element.
- Having the facilitator sit in close proximity to the families fostered conversation and provided an opportunity to make the activity relevant to their lives. (Ex. “Can you imagine writing your homework with a quill?”, “Have you ever written with a fountain pen?”, “Do you know how to write in cursive?”)
- Several people could do the activity at once.
However, we also saw some areas where there was room for improvement:
- The setup location in the exhibit lacked relevance to the program’s content.
- There was a strict barrier between the facilitator and the families which elicited a teacher/student dynamic when the program was intended to be more casual.
- Family members had to stand; there were few places to sit.
- The historical content was limited; only one historical form was available to fill out.
- There was limited engagement between family members and, for the most part, adults and kids participated individually.
The Redevelopment Process:
Over several months during the fall of 2014, we worked on improving “Impress with a Quill Pen”. We started by adding chairs. This made it more comfortable for families and allowed them to spend more time if they chose. The original program location, which featured signs for museum membership, was great for traffic flow but wasn’t relevant to the program content. Furthermore, there was still the problem of the facilitator in the traditional role sitting behind the table, which came across as too authoritative. Additionally, with this setup, we weren’t able to accommodate more than four to six people comfortably at the table.
Next, we moved the whole setup upstairs to the entrance of our “All Hands on Deck” exhibit. This was a good location to greet families and invite them to participate in the program, and the life-size cutouts of “sailors” help them imagine the real sailors of 1812. We situated the table right outside the “House of Rendezvous” where men would have been recruited into the Navy, presented their Seaman’s Protection Certificates, and signed enlistment papers.
When sailors joined the Navy, they had the option to fill out an allotment form. This document stated how much of their paycheck they wanted sent home to their family. The enlisted men would need to have some money while at sea to buy items from the purser, but they would also want to support loved ones at home. This historical point allowed us to add another form for visitors to fill out: a blank copy of an Allotment Form. The facilitator could ask questions like, “How much would you be willing to allot?”, “Who would you designate to receive the money?”, “Do you help out with household expenses with your salary or allowance?”, or “How would you feel about parting with your hard-earned money?” The allotment form also gives family members an opportunity to use their imagination when filling in the blanks which encouraged creativity.
Around the corner, there is also a display about what the average sailor on board USS CONSTITUTION looked like. This added another historical reference point when visitors fill out their Seaman’s Protection Certificate. Families can discuss their distinctive features – height, hair color, or tattoos – and compare themselves to the average sailor in 1812. If children don’t know their height, they could measure themselves on the nearby ruler. Facilitators can encourage them to discuss what makes each family member unique, and what sailors were like back then.
Exhibit labels also introduce how men could enlist as a sailor or a Marine. This prompted us to add yet another form that families could fill out: a Marine Enlistment Form. They can discuss if they would prefer to enlist as a sailor or a Marine, and why. All in all this new location not only gave context to the program, but provided more variety in the forms we could offer visitors to fill out. Each form is optional, not a required part of the activity, so it gives visitors a choice in the activity and more to connect to and talk about. Each form was designed to accommodate a different level as well. One family member can simply sign their name, maybe fill out a few details, while another family members complete an entire form for more of a challenge.
We continued to experiment with the placement of the table and chairs. We moved over to a different part of the exhibit and added benches on both sides of a small table. We also added a sign which introduced the activity. It read: “Can you write with a feather? Sailors and Marines could. A fun program for adults and children. Join in for a few minutes. Asking questions and taking pictures is encouraged!” The sign emphasizes that the activity is for all ages, not just kids, and previews the activity so families know what to expect.
We kept experimenting with the table setup and added some small tray tables for extra supplies and storage. With two benches and a small table, only four visitors could participate at once, which wasn’t ideal. We did, however, get the facilitator out of the corner into more of a floating role. This put the focus on the family members interacting with each other instead of mostly interacting with the facilitator.
We started to see more intergenerational participation. Providing seating for everyone made family members of all ages feel more comfortable participating. Inviting families to sit together at the table encouraged them to talk to each other about what they were doing. Also, the allotment form has some trickier parts for younger kids which means that adults can take a more active role in helping them.
Another improvement we made to the program setup was including three types of pens to write with. The traditional feather quill can be tricky to use, so we also offered the option of using a ballpoint pen with a quill attached, which is easiest and good for littler kids, and a steel nib fountain pen which is good for older kids or adults. Family members know what’s best for themselves, so offering choices supports the kind of experience they want to have.
In addition, we added a small welcome table to preview the activity. This lets families know what to expect. We have some props such as a tin sander, a blotter, and an ink packet which are additional tactile elements. We also display examples of the historical forms so everyone can see examples of 19th century handwriting and look more closely at copies of authentic documents.
One last improvement to the program was the addition of gold stickers with a Captain’s seal on them. If an adult is hesitant to try writing with their children, the adult can act as the customs officer and stamp the kids’ documents to authenticate them. This gives a role to everyone in the group.
Overall, we created a more robust program that is more accessible and more relevant than it was before. The program is now multi-sided (families can access the activity from all sides), multi-user (several people can participate at once), and multi-modal (the activity works for different learning styles and levels). Facilitators invite the entire group (adults and kids) to sit at the table and try writing with a quill pen. With flexible seating, all family members can participate and they have an opportunity to talk about what they’re doing. The facilitator continues to offer information and support but families can engage with each other more easily. There is a chance to practice writing, but the main focus is on the historical documents and their historical significance. By offering three forms instead of just one, we give families a choice and a chance to be creative. Each form requires a different amount of writing so that there is something for everyone’s level of comfort and length of engagement. Locating the program in a different exhibit puts it in context so that it relates to the ship’s crew, the War of 1812, and USS CONSTITUTION’s history. The experience is now more layered with options for all levels of interest and ability. We hope that, with the changes we’ve made, families have a worthwhile intergenerational experience, and that this program enriches their museum visit.
See these pages for more programming case studies:
Engage Families: A Checklist of Ideas Presentation
Out Run Out Gun Design Challenge: A Redesign Process Narrative
Transforming an Existing Program into a Truly Intergenerational Activity: A Case Study