Among the many presidential inaugural festivities was a tour and reception that Chelsea Clinton had with some friends in the Hands On History Room at the Museum of American History. Here, Chelsea tries a high wheeler bicycle. By Rick Vargus, 1993. SmithsonianInstitution Archives, Accession 98-015, Image no. 93-10150-18A.

Hands On. Hands Off.

Will such things as the Hands on History Room ever exist again?

On December 8, 1992, the Hands on History Room opened at the National Museum of American History. The 3,000-square-foot room featured more than forty hands-on historical activities for Museum visitors to experience.  Activities included harnessing a mule, separating raw cotton fibers from the seed by cranking a cotton gin (very hard physical work), using a sewing machine without electricity (by way of a foot treadle), and catching the view from a high wheeler bicycle.  Whatever the experience, It all seems like a really useful way to get literally “in touch” with how much work was involved in tasks we have no experience with or real understanding of. But what was available for those who wanted a more personal link to the past?

A boy and a girl harness a prop mule in an exhibit. The boy is in a wheelchair.

One section featured a peddler’s pack filled with typical items for sale to be handled.  Along with this, was a map and story tracing the route of an immigrant peddler named Nathan Adler as he walked through Upstate New York in 1848 selling his wares.  Another section explored making shoes without machines and featured the names of these workers in census records. And not everything was industrial. One exhibit gave visitors the chance to learn about Zuni pottery and then make their own paper pot and paint it. 

A woman and two children work with a sewing machine on a table.

Although activities in the Hands on History Room appear to be for kids, experiences were geared to visitors of all ages and, judging from the reviews in the papers and the pictures that we have here, everyone enjoyed getting into the act.

Chelsea Clinton sits on a high wheeler and another young woman sits on a shorter bike. Other childre

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