Washington — I read the other day that senior citizens are 11 to 12 percent of the population,'' says Elizabeth Sharpe, explaining the reasoning behind a senior outreach program she helped coordinate at the Smithsonian's Museum of History and Technology. ''We're supposed to be a public museum, yet we found we weren't serving that particular public.''
One of a growing number of US museums learning to address the special needs of senior citizens, the Smithsonian started in 1981 to take objects from two of its museums - History and Technology, and Natural History - out to nursing homes , senior day-care centers, and other places ''where there were adults with little mobility,'' explains Ms. Sharpe.
Once there, she says, teaching teams from History and Technology put more than 4,000 seniors through a six-week, in-depth look at the way technology has affected their lives. Ironically, the teachers found themselves doing the learning from participants, with audiences filling in the Smithsonian's historical outlines with colorful anecdotes from their lives.
A report she wrote on the program includes many such local pictures, like this one: ''As the presenters were leaving the site after the Communications section, a man stopped them. The man told them about his favorite disc records, did impressions of singers, and told about his friends who worked on movie news during World War I. This was the first time the presenters had heard him speak.''
Ms. Sharpe's program covered a different topic, like ''Communications'' or ''Ice Cream Making,'' each week, passing around objects from the museum to enhance their presentation. The Museum of Natural History, in conjunction with the National Zoological Park and Museum of African Art, started in a similar way addressing those whose contact with the world is limited by taking several ''natural'' objects out to senior citizens and handicapped groups. Now they have developed kits that such groups can use by themselves.
Judy White, chief of education for the National Zoo, shows what can happen with objects from these kits. Addressing an audience of recreation directors from around the city who have come to learn how to use the program, she passes out a huge, jagged, toothy structure.
''That's disgusting,'' says the first participant.
''What is it?'' asks a second.
''It feels strange,'' says a third.
The object goes from hand to hand, as Ms. White explains: ''It's an elephant's tooth. But see what it did for you?''
The objects' ability to trigger memories results in rich oral histories, say the presenters. At many sites, for example, where they brought in a telegraph, they found members of the audience tapping the tables and explaining ''what it was like to work in a telegraph or telephone office,'' says Ms. Sharpe.
The objects often spoke where words failed, she found. ''We got a volunteer to translate at a Hispanic site for us,'' she says, ''but when we showed them the picture of the Model T Ford, four (members) started cranking with their hands in the air - it needed no translation.''
The Model T brought on many peripheral memories, the presenters found. A woman recollected that her husband had proposed in a Ford, and a man said he was born in a Model T when his parents used it to rush from their country home to the city hospital.
Oral histories like these have helped the Smithsonian ''put objects in context,'' says Ms. Sharpe. ''In one of the programs, we bring out an apple parer and ask people what it is,'' she explains. ''Well, there are an awful lot of apple parers around, so you'd think everyone would know what it is, but we found that usually only one or two people would recognize it. So they weren't as commonly used as you'd think,'' she says.
Some 1,000 such reminiscences have been extracted from History and Technology's records of the program, and names of participants were passed along to oral history offices and used in Smithsonian programs. ''For example, we found a woman in a nursing home who had worked in a sewing factory in Virginia who was able to come and give a talk on what that was like for a program we ran on women at work,'' says Ms. Sharpe.
The program also shows the seniors themselves just how valuable and interesting their memories are. Joan Madden, who coordinated the Museum of Natural History's first outreach program, recalls, ''An old gentleman who lives (at a nursing home) spoke slowly at first, but picked up speed and volume as he realized that his audience was just spellbound by his account of the mining operation he ran. He said he'd unearthed enough gold in 24 hours time to equal $ 10,000 in 1926 dollars,'' she recalls.
Bringing these memories to mind, says an education specialist from the Smith-sonian, ''can reweave the lost threads of the past. The review process can also function as a gift to society, carrying with it the gratification and sheer pleasure of being a storyteller to a younger audience who wants to listen,'' she says.
The Museum of Natural History, meanwhile, has developed a ''how to'' manual for those interested in serving this population, called ''An Object in Hand.'' For more information, write to: Joan Madden, Office of Education, Room 212, National Museum of Natural History, Washington, D.C. 20560.