Family Learning Forum

A Project of the USS Constitution Museum

Blog: Earning the Nickname Old Ironsides

by Family Learning Interns at the USS Constitution Museum

Coloring Outside the Lines

Date Tested:  July 21, 2011
Author: Julia da Silva

A lot of confusion surrounds Old Ironsides and many visitors don’t initially realize that there is, in fact, no iron in Constitution’s hull. Instead, the name comes from an unknown sailor’s joyous exclamation upon witnessing one of Guerriere’s cannonballs bounce futilely off of Constitution’s side: “Huzzah, her sides are made of iron!” No image exists of the moment where USS Constitution earned her nickname Old Ironsides in battle with HMS Guerriere in August 1812. Well, no image existed before today... now there are a number of them! Sarah and I débuted the Old Ironsides coloring activity for the 1812 Discovery Center today.

Coloring Sheet

Sheet with missing panel for visitors to fill in


Tipping Towards War Prototype Completed

Informational label

In this interactive, we're asking visitors to fill in the missing panel with their interpretation of that fateful moment. We worked with three groups, which produced twelve drawings At one point there were eleven kids working on their drawings while Sarah was off making photocopies; things were a wee bit chaotic! Despite the chaos, we ended up with some really great art:

Tipping Towards War Prototype Completed

Completed prototypes

Unfortunately, but not unexpectedly, we also found a few challenges. Firstly, none of the adults participated in the art-making. Our first testers were two middle-school aged children with their grandmother. Grandma read the instruction cards to the kids, but then left them to their own devices and even left the gallery entirely. Because of her initial guidance, the children understood what to draw and were successful. The second and third groups, however, were headed by parents less interested or able to guide their children's experience. One mother was overseeing nine children, some of whom were quite young, and it fell to me to explain the activity to the children. The two girls in the final group were dropped off by their caretaker, who promptly retreated to the far side of the gallery. I also needed to guide these girls' experience, as they were too young to read the instruction and content cards.

My experiences with the coloring activity clearly reveal one major problem: parents aren't participating with their children. We've considered adding a distilled version of the instructions, in kid-friendly language, on the drawing sheets themselves. This may circumvent some of the confusion that kids face when they're left alone. But this really just treats the symptoms, not the cause. We need to ascertain why parents aren't participating. Perhaps they feel that, because there is a staff person present, either they don't need to participate or that they're not supposed to be involved. Our very presence may be a deterrent. To test this theory, we'd like to try displaying the interactive much like how it would appear in the finished gallery and step back to observe. Will families work together or will kids continue to work alone, often without the guidance they need? If the latter scenario proves to be true, we'll need to consider whether or not this is a tenable activity for an exhibit or if it would function better as a program. Stay tuned.


Sinking the Ship

Date: July 25, 2011
Author: Julia da Silva

Our first prototyping session illustrated some clear challenges for the Old Ironsides coloring interactive. While visitors clearly had a lot of fun, it was evident that this would likely not be a successful unfacilitated interactive. No adults were interested in participating either passively or actively, and children were therefore left without much guidance as to how to proceed. After talking the situation over with Robert Kiihne, the museum’s Director of Exhibits, we have decided that the coloring sheets would work better as part of a program than as a free-standing exhibit interactive.

While we’re disappointed that we’ve found a dead-end in terms of an element for the 1812 Discovery Center, we are pleased to have found a program activity that really does seem to engage kids creatively in history. For now, though, we’re back to the drawing board to see how else we may be able to teach visitors about Constitution’s most famous nickname.