By Christina Ferwerda and Judy Vannais
Who knew that twenty-first-century kids could be so enthralled with the story of the man who created our nation’s banking system over 200 years ago? BORING! Right? But, Lin Manuel-Miranda’s game-changing, Grammy-award- and Pulitzer-prize-winning, box-office blockbuster, “Hamilton” proves that almost any story can be engaging for children if it is told in a manner they can understand and relate to. Miranda’s hip-hop interpretation of the life of the first U.S. Secretary of the Treasury – “the ten-dollar founding father without a father got a lot farther by working a lot harder, by being a lot smarter, by being a self-starter” – is a rags-to-riches story about an illegitimate, orphan, teenage immigrant rising to become famous and influential through the power of his intellect and the persuasion of his words: a version of the American dream familiar to many modern kids.
Despite the fact that it is virtually impossible for even the wealthy and connected to get the hottest ticket on Broadway, beginning this month, “Hamilton” will be seen by over 20,000 New York City eleventh-grade students over the next year – each paying only a “Hamilton” ($10) – through a program to integrate Alexander Hamilton into classroom studies. The musical, however, is not the first opportunity New York kids have had recently to get to know Alexander Hamilton in terms familiar to them.
An Innovative Interpretive Exhibit Makes History Come Alive
Currency and coinage interactive exhibit (Photo by Peter Hyde)
In 2008, well before Miranda conceived of “Hamilton” the musical, Lee H. Skolnick Architecture + Design Partnership (LHSA+DP) began working with the New-York Historical Society (N-YHS) to develop a dedicated children’s museum within its walls to appeal to children and families, an audience previously underserved by the N-YHS. Charged with “making history come alive,” LHSA+DP worked with the N-YHS curatorial team to develop an interpretive exhibit plan that fosters an understanding of what life was like for kids long ago. The storyline focused on notable New Yorkers, including Alexander Hamilton, through the lens of their childhoods as a powerful and novel way to engage children 8-12 years old with American history.
Entry Façade to DiMenna Children’s History Museum (Photo by Jon Wallen)
The DiMenna Children’s History Museum (DCHM) opened in 2011 to immediate acclaim, breaking all attendance records and increasing visitorship by young people to the N-YHS by an incredible 500% in the first year. Its success arises from its innovative and sophisticated approach to interpretive exhibits for children, in which the interactives are not only fun, but also inspire curiosity leading to deeper investigation of the content, including the life of Alexander Hamilton, making the DCHM the perfect complement to Miranda’s musical. As a preview for the stage show, the exhibit introduces kids to Hamilton as a teenager to whom they can relate and the DCHM is also a great place to take kids who have been inspired by the musical to learn more about the man and also to investigate other dramatic stories that help them to understand their own place in American History.
Connections to “Hamilton” the Musical
While the musical’s first song, “Alexander Hamilton,” summarizes the early life of the future founding father; at DCHM, a dedicated exhibit “pavilion” explores the life of Hamilton as a teenage immigrant from the Caribbean island of St. Croix. The N-YHS’s vision for the DCHM was to tell stories that explore aspects of New York City history and their larger impact on the rest of America. LHSA+DP designed a suite of tableaux, or abstracted pavilions, to interpret the New York story on one side and its correlative national story on the other. Hands-on interactives were created to help kids investigate and understand the more complex aspects of Hamilton’s life in New York as well as his role in shaping the new nation.
Hamilton Pavilion (Detail of photo by Jon Wallen)
On one side of the pavilion, visitors see a desk in a study, as if they’ve stepped into Pre-Revolutionary-War-Era New York. Environmental graphics act as a “decoder” to help children read and understand an article of the Federalist Papers (written by Hamilton in 1787-1788), making a connection to the musical, in which these papers are also a theme, and also emphasizing the power of Hamilton’s writing.
To communicate the national side of Hamilton’s story, LHSA+DP designed the reverse side of his pavilion to delve into his role in founding the National Bank, a topic not generally favored by kids. An interactive media exhibit allows kids to explore how trade, taxation, and saving helped strengthen the financial position of the new nation. Miranda also gives this topic new flair in the songs, “Cabinet Battle #1” and “Cabinet Battle #2.”
“Bankville” trading and investment interactive game (Photo courtesy of Unified Field, Inc.)
“Hamilton,” the musical and the DCHM are testament to the power of personal engagement – both meet children of various ages at their stage of development and capitalize on their interests, making a story that could appear foreign and boring intensely engaging and relevant.
The DiMenna Children’s History Museum — called “the most hands-on Hamilton destination” by mommypoppins.com is located at the New-York Historical Society, 170 Central Park West at 77th Street.