The students shot their hands in the air and tossed out guesses: “200 years,” said one. “1,000 years,” said another. “3,000 years,” said a third.
Facing them on the top floor of Georgia’s Capitol building, Kayla Adams pressed a finger to her mouth like she had a secret.
“Actually, we have evidence going back 12,000 to 15,000 years of Native Americans living in Georgia,” said Adams, the Capitol’s tour and education manager.
The revelation drew surprised murmurs and satisfied nods of heads from fifth graders visiting from Dalton last Thursday. They were among the first groups to get a taste of a new educational approach Adams is adding to her tours of the Georgia Capitol Museum.
“Now,” Adams said. “Let me tell you another fact about the Yamacraw.”
It’s a great time of the year for a tour of the Capitol building in Atlanta, when the halls under the 130-year-old Gold Dome are hushed just before the loud legislative session begins mid-January. With fewer crowds, people on the guided tours each Monday at 1 p.m. can linger a bit longer than usual.
Adams and Georgia State University students these days are tinkering with ways to liven up the tours by featuring more of Georgia’s core history and culture. For example, they’re focusing on the role of technology in the state’s agriculture industry and telling stories of the civil rights movement.
Using games, arts and crafts, maps and a video projector, Adams’ new educational program called “Capitol History Highlights” aims to broaden the tour’s scope beyond a stroll through the rotunda on the way to gawk at the stuffed two-headed calf on display upstairs.
“We should be offering something more to the people who come here,” said Adams, a Gold Dome tour guide since 2017. “It’s been great to see this project actually come alive.”
About 100 fifth-graders from Blue Ridge School in Dalton took the new version of the tour last month, marking the largest group to do so since Adams kicked off her project in July. They got a primer on Native American history in Georgia that included a lively lecture from Adams and an interactive mapping game.
The tour’s educational focus impressed fifth-grader Skyler Davis. She already knew about the Cherokee tribe’s roots in Georgia, but had no idea that a deal cut by Yamacraw chief Tomochichi and English General James Oglethorpe resulted in the settling of Savannah.
“I learned a lot,” Davis said afterward. “And I even took some notes!”
Her classmate, Josiah Rankin, agreed.
“I had an awesome time,” Rankin said. “We learned a lot about different cultures.”
The new educational tours are scheduled twice a month. Only a few spots are available before the Legislature convenes, Adams said.
Meanwhile, people can still take the regular guided tours of the Capitol on Mondays to see the grounds and spaces like the House and Senate chambers. And yes, that includes a chance to ogle the two-headed calf on the fourth floor.
“I want to make sure everyone knows they can come to their seat of government to visit and learn about its history,” Adams said.
The Georgia Capitol Museum programming is a slimmed-down version from what it was before the 2008 financial crisis. Before recession-era budget cuts, the museum had more staff than it does now and ran an education center out of a building across the street, said former Secretary of State Cathy Cox, who oversaw the museum during part of her term that ran from 1998 to 2006.
Adding the historical perspective is a valuable public service, Cox said.
“You don’t just necessarily get it by walking around a marble building,” Cox said by phone last week. “You need some live and educational programming to get the best outcome for visiting students.”
Adams is one of only two tour guides these days. She hopes the new project, backed by a grant from the nonprofit Georgia Humanities and planning and outreach work from undergraduate students in Georgia State’s Heritage Preservation program will help transform the Capitol museum and tours into something more like the pre-recession version.
That’s also the goal for Sheryl Vogt, director of the University of Georgia’s Richard B. Russell Library for Political Research and Studies. The university library now oversees the museum and tours. Money is so tight, Vogt said she sometimes has to dip into library funds to pay for the Capitol’s museum staffing and operations.
“Part of our focus is to really improve the educational aspects of what we do,” Vogt said last week. “Eventually, we hope to have a new museum design that’s more interactive and modern than what it is now.”
The new tour project is still a work in progress, but Blue Ridge School principal Christine Long says she’s already a big fan. She said the tour that Adams gave her Dalton students last Thursday brought to life what they’ve been learning in civics class.
“It’s just neat for them to be able to make that connection,” Long said after the tour. “To be able to have this opportunity for all of us to be able to explore this museum, it’s incredible.”
To learn more about visiting the Georgia State Capitol and to make a reservation for a guided tour, visit the Georgia Capitol Museum’s website here.