Tour the American History Museum With an American Girl
All around the Smithsonian, museums are commemorating the sesquicentennial of the Civil War in their own special ways— reexamining the oft-told narrative through exhibits, retrospectives, special programming, and even doll-inspired scavenger hunts.
Last month, the National Museum of American History teamed up with the popular book and doll series American Girl to debut a new self-guided tour called Addy's World that allows children, ages 8 to 13, to explore the museum and see what life would have been like for the fictional character Addy Walker, a nine-year-old American girl who was born into slavery and escapes to freedom with her mother during the Civil War.
When American Girl, then Pleasant Company, first debuted in 1986, they introduced a line of historical dolls—fictional nine-year-old-characters who lived during some of the seminal periods in American history. From their vintage clothing to their books, they became treasured friends to many girls and a provided a doorway into understanding the past from a child's perspective. That initial line has now expanded to include a number of other types of dolls, creating fans that span generations. The result is that almost every girl of a certain age, both young and not so young, has an American Girl story.
Addy Walker debuted in 1993, the fifth doll in the American Girl series. "I was really impressed that they wanted to add an African-American character to the series and to give her somewhat of a quintessential story, which is hard to do when you're looking a hundreds of years of history," said Connie Porter, author of the Addy books. Telling Addy's story was not an easy task, Porter says, but it was an important one. "One thing that was really emphasized from the beginning was that we’re not going to reduce a human being to one word—that this person was a slave," Porter says. "She was enslaved but she was somebody’s daughter and she was somebody’s sister and she was part of a family. When you talk in those words slave, you’re talking about people." And through the character of Addy, children can begin to understand that difficult part of American history. "I really understood what slavery was through the character of Addy," says Erica Richardson, an intern at the museum who never owned a doll, but read all of the books. "I very much understood it in terms of the family being separated," she said.
The guide, which begins at the museum's slave ship model and ends at the battle flag of the Louisiana 84th Infantry, U.S. Colored Troops, was carefully designed with younger people in mind. It's fun, going throughout the museum looking for clues, but it also starts a conversation about the pieces they find. "It opens up a dialogue between the parent and the child," says Mary Kate Macko, floor manager of the Public Programming Office. "It opens the child's eyes up and allows them to ask questions within a framework that they already know, which is Addy."
For some, the dolls inspired a lifelong love of history. "I don't think I would have been as interested in history as I am if I hadn't been introduced to American Girl books and dolls," says Macko, who owned a Felicity doll. "She was a relatable girl, she got in trouble, her parents were disappointed in her; it was believable and I just ate it up," Macko says. "I just loved her." For others, the dolls represented a way of seeing themselves as a part of history. "What struck me about reading Addie," Richardson says, "was the realization that this is my history, not just as an American, but as an African American," allowing her to draw connections to her heritage.
And it is the hope that through this guide, younger girls can also engage and feel a part of this history. "I think it's wonderful whenever you can introduce history to a student through storytelling," said Jennifer Wei, an educational specialist at the museum, who also collected the earlier books. "Once you, as a reader, care about what happens to Addy, then you're more curious about history and the Civil War, specifically," she says.
"It's a guiding hand and a familiar face, in Addy, helping engage young girls with different aspects of the museum," Richardson says.
From now until August, visitors can pick up the guide from the Information Center on the first floor of the museum and, upon completion, receive a free gift from the museum store.