We all know that hands-on learning opportunities are engaging, and result in meaningful visitor experiences.  Visitors enjoy experiencing “the real thing”, and putting it into their hands is about as real as you can get.  Education and interpretation teams work hard to develop an enriching and engaging program that incorporates as many hands-on learning opportunities as possible.  But it’s not enough to develop the program without also developing a plan to deal with the day-to-day operational needs.

These hands-on experiences come with their fair share of troubles.  We regularly see objects from our handling collection come back bruised and broken, or we get feedback from our staff and volunteers about challenges associated with delivering these programs.  So here are some simple but practical tips we’ve learned from experience to make sure that your hands-on programming is always ready to engage your visitors.

moose horn

Need a moose horn? We have a variety of styles and sizes, but each specimen communicates a similar message. When one is past its prime, in comes the replacement.

1. Factor in hands-on materials from the beginning.
It may sound obvious, but make sure that your education or interpretation team considers all aspects of the hands-on opportunities early in the development process of new programs.  Collaborate with curators, conservators, and collection managers.  They will know what material will best suit your learning objectives, and can help elongate the lifespan of more delicate materials.

Some questions you might want to consider as you develop your hands-on visitor experiences:

  • What materials do you already have on hand that could be showcased and handled?
  • How many copies of the objects will you need?
  • Are replacement objects easy to source over time?
  • Can your program continue if one object is temporarily out of commission?

Make sure you have the answers to these questions before you implement your hands-on learning opportunities.

2. Consider how long you anticipate running each hands-on program. 
Is this a one-off weekend event, or is this going to be a regular experience in a permanent gallery?  Make sure you have enough material to last you the entire run of the program, or at least a full year if it’s a regular offering.

We can’t count the number of times that an integral hands-on item has been damaged (or worse, gone missing!), and the original source of that item is no longer available.  Sourcing ten arrow heads at once is much more efficient than finding a new arrow head every few months.   Our system is to always acquire in bulk whenever possible.


This table was specifically designed to house hands-on objects for a volunteer led activity in one of our exhibitions. When no volunteers are present, the storage table doubles as a display case.

3. Provide appropriate storage.
When it comes to hands-on objects, Murphy’s Law applies.  Everything that can go wrong will go wrong.  Try to out-smart Murphy from the beginning and build in appropriate storage.  This will give your staff or volunteers a framework in which to deliver the program, as well as provide protection to items both while in use, and after.

In our archaeology school program, kids discover artifacts by digging in the sand.  Once the thrill of discovery is over, where do the discovered treasures go?  Back in the sand?  In a pile on the floor?  This program did not originally have a safe place to deposit the objects.  But by providing appropriate trays for the archeological discoveries, we teach students that artifacts must be handled with care, and it also prevents them from inadvertently stepping on the objects while they hunt for their next find.

Similarly, building in storage to our program delivery spaces or exhibitions means that all our staff and volunteers know where to find program materials, and know where to replace them.  It makes it much easier to see if something is missing if everything has a designated home.


This cedar headband has seen better days. Thankfully, we have a number of headbands in reserve that can be switched out into the school program so the students will still get to experience authentic material from the North West coast.

4.  Have a plan for when things go wrong.
When objects are handled by the public, at some point something’s going to break.  If you plan for this in advance, your programming won’t skip a beat and your visitors will be none the wiser.  Whenever possible, have a backup item within easy reach.  We like to keep backup objects where the material is stored between program offerings.following up.  We have a designated “broken items bin” (affectionately referred to as the artifact graveyard) in a storage room that all staff have access to.  In that bin, there’s a damage report form where they record the nature of the damage, when and how it happened, and any other relevant details.  Then an email is sent to the program planner responsible for the upkeep of the program.  This system helps keep the entire team informed, and it is also a useful tool for gathering data.  We can easily see if one item is being damaged repeatedly and adjust accordingly.

5. Train your staff and volunteers.
While leafing through an outdated version of an old school program, we were all a bit shocked to read our predecessors’ hands-on philosophy; “Don’t worry if something breaks or is damaged.  These items are easy to repair or replace.”  We can agree with the sentiment that we don’t want our staff or volunteers to “worry” if something is damaged, but we certainly don’t want to go around spreading the rumor that these items are easy to repair or replace!

Your visitors will likely encounter hands-on objects with the guidance of volunteers or floor staff.  Make sure your team is properly equipped; train staff and volunteers on proper object handling techniques.  An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.  Simple tips like ‘only handle one object at a time’, ‘use two hands on each item’, or ‘never lift a ceramic jug solely by its handle’ can really help extend the life of your handling collection.  The more respect your team shows to your hands-on collection, the more that respect will rub off on the visitors.  Although we want our visitors to experience material culture for themselves, we also want to send a message that these items are special.  Your local conservation institute will be able to give tips and advice on developing a set of handling guidelines that allow for maximum access and security.

By Kerri Davis