My twelve year old son Sam and I spent the first week of August at the WoodenBoat School, out near the end of the Blue Hill peninsula on the coast of Maine. It was family boatbuilding week and we were there, with three other families, to build an Echo Bay Dory Skiff, a 12' long lug-rigged sailboat, under the tutelage of a skilled boat builder. All of us were amateurs, none with much experience – some had never done any woodworking before at all. We started out Monday morning with four sheets of plywood and a stack of lumber and left five days later with a boat on top of our car. In between, we learned a lot about boats and boatbuilding, and about ourselves.
WoodenBoat has its roots in the skills transfer movement of the 1970's. At the time, as fiberglass replaced wood as the boatbuilding material of choice and elderly artisans retired or died, maritime historians (and others) worried that we might succeed in preserving traditional small craft as objects in museum collections, but not the knowledge, experience and craftsmanship needed to make them. This spurred the formation of boatbuilding apprenticeship programs around the country, many of them museum-based, where master builders provided hands-on instruction to eager young acolytes. A half century later a surprising number of those new age apprentices have stayed in the field, and nowadays they and some of their students are passing the same skills along to another generation.
Which is how Sam and I came to find ourselves working 10 - 12 hour days in a beautiful old brick barn on the shores of Eggemoggin Reach. With the remarkably patient guidance of our instructor, Clint Chase, we sawed and drilled and screwed and glued and planed and sanded (and fretted and sweated and swore) as we gradually, unbelievably, persuaded flat, rectilinear, often uncooperative pieces of wood to take on the graceful compound curves of a little boat. The result is far from perfect, but we made it ourselves, and when we launched Red Knot into our cove a few weeks later – and it actually floated! – it contained not only a proud father and son but an aggregation of newfound confidence and capability.
In almost all of our exhibit design projects we pay ritual lip service to the importance of experiential learning, and we're constantly trying to come up with new ideas for interactives. Far too often, unfortunately, what that translates into is pushing a button. What we rarely if ever have an opportunity to do – because it takes too long, is too complicated, isn't reliable enough, requires too much commitment, etc., etc., etc. – is engage our guests in making or doing something real – in the transformative experience of good hard work. And that's too bad.