Behind the scenes of our “The 39 Clues” virtual field trip with History Explorer educator Sarah Coffee
There’s an aura of mystery to the museum at 5:30 AM on a frigid January morning, which is fitting as I was about to play a very small part in the last chapter of the sweeping saga of historical intrigue, The 39 Clues.
The 39 Clues is the story of the Cahills, the most powerful family in history, whose illustrious members have been at the heart of virtually every historical event of significance. The clues themselves are hidden across the globe, and must be uncovered in order to reveal an ultimate, earth-shaking secret. Told over the course of two New York Times bestselling book series, each installment is written by a different acclaimed author.
The 39 Clues are all about solving historical mysteries by finding and examining artifacts for the hidden messages they contain about the past, a pursuit that sounds pretty familiar to anyone acquainted with the work we do at the National Museum of American History. In fact, the path to the final resolution of the current 39 Clues series arc lies through the Smithsonian. The museum is one of the key settings in Day of Doom, the latest installment of The 39 Clues, written by David Baldacci.
That is why I found myself bleary-eyed on a recent winter morning, watching a film crew busily setting up lights, teleprompters, and cameras near one of our landmark objects, the John Bull locomotive, getting ready for David Baldacci’s first interview of the morning, with curator Harry Rubenstein. It was filming day for Decoding History, a virtual field trip produced in collaboration between the museum and Scholastic, publisher of The 39 Clues series. Over the course of the day, David Baldacci, as guide of the field trip, would be making stops throughout the building to see artifacts and talk to curators. As program assistant for education outreach, my role in the endeavor was a small one, primarily consisting of making sure that none of the film crew got lost in the building and that everyone got pizza at the end of the day.
We began filming in the wee hours, before the building opened to the public. During this time, Baldacci visited some of the most famous artifacts we have on public display, like Abraham Lincoln’s pocket watch and the compass that guided Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on their fateful journey. In the afternoon, as students and families milled through the exhibitions, Baldacci would be going behind the scenes to conservation labs and storage areas rarely seen by the public, talking to conservator Suzanne Thomassen-Krauss and curator Bonnie Campbell Lillienfeld about the hidden messages they’ve uncovered in the artifacts in our collection.
It was a fascinating whirlwind of a day. In many ways, it began to feel like a mini Cahill adventure, enacted wholly within the walls of the museum. It reminded me of that childlike feeling I used to get that history can be a journey, and that there are epic mysteries to be uncovered.
Decoding History: A Virtual Fieldtrip to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History will be webcast on March 5th at 1:00 PM ET and will continue to be available on the museum website and on the Scholastic website.