Cambridge Ridley Lynch: Museum Educator Inspires Students to Make History

Cambridge Ridley Lynch: Museum Educator Inspires Students to Make History
After hearing that one of her students “didn’t like” museums, seventh and eighth grade social studies teacher Cambridge Ridley Lynch set out to change his mind and inspire a love of museums and history in all of her students. Drawing on her experience as an educator at the Museum of the City of New York, Ms. Lynch crafted an innovative, design-thinking research project that asked students to redesign an exhibition of the Native American galleries in the American Museum of Natural History, complementing their study of Native peoples and encouraging students to consider ways of giving Native peoples “historical agency” within the museum context.

Read our interview with Cambridge here.

Q: What drew you to the study of history? What excites you most about the discipline now?

Ms. Lynch: As a child, I loved math and science and literature and art—I never understood the notion that learning has to be an either/or. History is a fascinating discipline because it requires you to be well-rounded: on a meta level, you need to be organized and analytical but also expressive and communicative.

Q: What did you study in college and graduate school? What did your research focus on? 

Ms. Lynch: In college [at Harvard University], I honed my skills comparing American and French culture in a major called “History and Literature of France and America,” with coursework in both English and French. It is an intensive major where students are put in small tutorials and required to write a significant paper every year. As it turns out, I loved that kind of work—and so decided to get my graduate degree and focus on American history.

Q: Where did you work before coming to us at St. Hilda’s & St. Hugh’s?

Ms. Lynch: My M.Phil. is from the CUNY Graduate Center, which is unique among many graduate programs because its students teach undergraduate classes independently as adjuncts, rather than as teaching assistants. I taught at Queens, Baruch, and John Jay Colleges, including a history of the city of New York, a colonial American history class, and both halves of the U.S. history survey.

When I had my oldest daughter, I became an educator at the Museum of the City of New York, teaching K-12 field trips, two high school seminars, and eventually doing the curriculum design for their flagship exhibition, “New York at Its Core.”

Q: How does your background in museum work influence your teaching now?

Ms. Lynch: Working as a museum educator was absolutely foundational for me. Before, I had a sense of what facts my students should know, but it wasn't until I got to the museum that I was able to see how hands-on work really transforms the educational experience. To be able to look at a single object with a group of students, to sense its physicality, to imagine all the hands that have touched it and to use it as a conduit into a past world—it was powerful stuff.

Q: Your current American Museum of Natural History design project with the seventh graders—why is this project important?

Ms. Lynch: The seed for the museum project was planted when I heard that one of my students had announced that he “didn’t like” museums. Walking through the Native American galleries in the American Museum of Natural History, I realized that designing their own exhibits would be a great way to engage with and retain the material.

After spending a few weeks exploring several Native peoples and modeling the kinds of considerations we would need to make to give them historical agency, the students got to work on their exhibits.

We've had the benefit of working with Allison Ingalsbe, an expert on design thinking, a process by which students approach a design project with empathy for various stakeholders and use rapid brainstorming to quickly imagine a prototype and test it against feedback. Kate Brown, one of the architects from Murphy Burnham & Buttrick, which has done award-winning design work for St. Hilda's & St. Hugh’s, graciously offered her time and also connected us with José-Luis Vidalón, a project manager for Studio Joseph, which designed the “Americans” exhibit at the National Museum of the American Indian.

The students have gotten a taste of just how hard it is to do research that accurately reflects a culture different from your own and how to work effectively in groups under time constraints, all while getting guidance and feedback from actual museum professionals.

Q: Why is it critical for students to study history?

Not only is history fun for all the reasons I've described, but it's also an essential tool in critical thinking and self-examination. History is based on interpretation: in our class we learn real facts about real people, but then we have the task of sending this information through our own interpretive lens. My students may argue any point of view they like, as long as they can back it up with facts—so the practice of history is, at its heart, the practice of taking a stand and confidently defending it, and that's a skill that is applicable to any walk of life.

To be even broader, the study of history is the study of structures of power. How have people used power for good? How have they used it for ill? When I consider these kinds of issues, I am always left with a sense of awe: I am just one part of a great chain of history-makers, people who tried their best to live good, meaningful lives, some of whom made choices that made indelible marks on the world around them. It makes me want to make sure that I am, in my own small way, a history-maker too, even if it's just teaching some amazing kids who in turn will change the world.