Buzzzzzing Through Time: A Public History Practicum Project

I see honey bees everywhere.  Of course, not the living, buzzing kind because those populations are in rapid decline, but preserved versions found in old books, tapestries, and stone walls.  My dear future graduate students, you will soon learn that even though you’ve turned in your paper, your research projects never really leave you.  

Karnak Bee

When my guide called this a butterfly, I nearly launched into a full-blown lecture.  Somehow, I resisted.  Karnak Temple, Luxor, Egypt.

Nearly a year ago classmates Anna Snyder, Anna (Reiter) Torres, and I began our bee adventure with our Public History Practicum project.  Every spring the American University Public History program partners with many institutions around the Washington, DC area, and my group worked with Smithsonian Gardens.  Each year the Gardens host Garden Fest, an event held on the National Mall that features educational booths and hands-on activities for people of all ages.  In 2015 the theme for Garden Fest was ‘pollinators,’ and the Gardens wanted a pop-up exhibit on the history of honey bees.

‘History of honey bees’ is open to many interpretations. Further, we are historians, not scientists, so we worried about doing this complex, interdisciplinary history justice.  Each of us has very different historical interests and we decided to utilize our diverse strengths. Together we created a ‘big idea’ that would guide the educational message of our pop-up exhibit:  “Humans have long relied on honey bees for their production of honey and wax.”[i]  This big idea gave us the freedom to show the dependence of humans on honey bees from circa 13,000 BCE to today, while demonstrating that the loss of honey bee populations would greatly impact our society today.                   

Bees China

Though the cases of Colony Collapse Disorder remain unclear, the consequences are undeniable.  In the 1980s, the honey bees in Southern Sichuan Province of China disappeared.  Now the people must pollinate their fruit trees by hand.  This could be the future of the United States.  Courtesy of Christopher O’Toole, Bees:  A Natural History.

Pop-up exhibits are designed to be temporary and are meant to create conversation by making one’s personal experience a part of the education (if you want to learn more about her innovative museum exhibit format, check out Nina Simon’s blog post).  The limited space in the garden made interpreting such a long history more of a challenge. Throughout the process of creating a pop-up exhibit, the three of us met with the Smithsonian Garden’s Manager of Horticultural Collections and Education Cynthia Brown and Education and Volunteer Program Coordinator Alison Kootstra to make sure we were meeting expectations and that our designs were doable.  


Building an exhibit takes planning and creative thinking.  Here we laid out a test panel to decide how large to create our text blocks.


Garden Fest Set-Up

Setting up the exhibit at Garden Fest 2015.  The ancient Egyptian ‘clay’ reproduction hives and one of the straw skeps are displayed on the table.

In the end, we created a timeline with pictures that showed moments in history when honey bees played an important role in peoples’ lives.  There were also hands-on options for visitors of all ages to get them engaged and excited about learning.  We had a photo-op where kids (and adults!) posed as a beekeeper.  There were three types of hives that visitors could touch and a large whiteboard with markers that posed the question:  “Can you name something honey bees help make?”  These hands-on activities encouraged visitors to start thinking about all the things that we need from honey bees, both as pollinators and producers of honey and wax.  Visitors were left wondering: if for thousands of years we have relied on honey bees, what will happen if honey bees disappear?

When we go.jpg


If you want to learn more about our project, check out our History of Honey Bees blog.  

Want to learn more about applying public history?  Take a look at this list of practicum projects by other American University Public History students.  


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