Why are children’s museums museums? – Take 2

Visitor at the Peoria PlayHouse Children's Museum, during the museum's first week of operations.

Visitor at the Peoria PlayHouse Children’s Museum, during the museum’s first week of operations.

As I emerge from the chaos of opening a new museum, I am still thinking about the question “Why are children’s museums museums?” which I blogged about in February. In that post I offered three ideas, which grew out of speaking with Barbara Meyerson and Elaine Heumann Gurian, and reading articles by Stephen Weil. In a nutshell, their answers boiled down to:

  1. Children’s museums are museums because they were originally object- and collections-based, and aligned themselves with the museum field.
  2. Children’s museums are museums because they are spaces for three-dimensional experiential learning.
  3. Children’s museums are museums because they serve a public good.

I now have a fourth idea to add to these, which grows out of my work this spring with teachers, and our collaborative work thinking about what a children’s museum could and should offer their students:

Children’s museums are museums because they broaden our understanding of the world.

This idea resonates with me because it captures what I understand as one of the original intentions of museums and public collections: to introduce people to areas and aspects of the world that they might not otherwise have the opportunity to see or experience. When I visited the Peoria Riverfront Museum’s exhibit Stuff: The Art of Collecting, I left with new ideas about collecting and its intersection with hoarding, as well as an introduction to some specific collections, like handmade boy scout neckerchief ties (who knew?). When I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibit Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky, I left knowing about early collaborations between Plains Indians and Europeans, and with a new curiosity about the use of American flags in late-19th and early 20-century Plains Indian art.

horse mask

Ornamental mask used for Fourth of July celebration on a Lakota reservation, displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in “Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky.”

So, if children’s museums are museums because they broaden visitors’ understandings of the world, what are the implications of this? Because of our audience, this is a little tricky: As one teacher pointed out, everything broadens a 4-year-old’s understanding of the world. In fact, one way to understand play is that it is a way to explore and experiment – to broaden understandings – even in familiar environments.

Even so, having a responsibility to broaden visitors’ understanding of the world indicates a few commitments on the part of the museum. Here are a few quick thoughts on what this might look like, and some of the opportunities and challenges:

  • Helping older children and adults find ways to learn new things in the museum – Here at the PlayHouse we are developing “challenge cards” to offer older visitors, which engage them with exhibits at a more sophisticated level.
  • Introducing novel ideas, phenomena, and artifacts – Our Motion Commotion exhibit is supposedly about physics, but right now it is mostly about playing with ways to shoot balls into a hopper. We are considering a pop-up activity that offers hands-on activities related to some of our wall-panels, which talk about levers, pulleys, and other ways to manipulate heavy objects.
  • Training floor staff to engage with visitors in ways that support experimentation and curiosity – During our interviews and training we put a heavy emphasis on supporting experimentation. We are now finding and solving problems that occur when visitor experiments have the potential to damage exhibits.
  • Introducing new cultural traditions to visitors – We are working with community members to develop activities and workshops around holidays and traditions from as many different cultures as possible. We hope to offer the first of these soon, in conjunction with Ramadan.
Radan card, "Ramadan w," by Setareha. From  "Ramadan w" by Setareha - Own work. From Wikimedia Commons.

Ramadan card entitled “Ramadan w” by Setareha. From Wikimedia Commons.

What do you think about this answer to “what makes children’s museums museums?” Do museums broaden visitors’ understanding of the world? Must they? If so, how do we best do this, and when do we fail?

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3 thoughts on “Why are children’s museums museums? – Take 2

  1. Hello, Rebecca. I think your idea that children’s museums are museums because they broaden our understanding of the world is strong and works well in several important ways. Just as the teacher you mention pointed out, everything broadens a 4 year old’s understanding of the world. Children’s museums curate and design spaces and experiences to broaden children’s understanding of the world in particular ways–in developmental areas and opportunities that are missing in their immediate environment, that are of local significance and relevance; that are fascinating to children; and open doors to big ideas. This is similar to how we curate and design objects and spaces in other types of museums to broaden visitors’ ideas and understanding about the natural world, art, science, or history. I also think that in broadening our understanding of the world in children’s museums, we have opportunities to broaden our/adult (museum staff, caregivers, educators, etc.) understanding of children, how they use play as a strategy to learn, how they think, their capabilities and strengths, what interests them, and their questions about the world. I think a children’s museum, or any museum, is most likely to be successful in doing this when it is clear about the areas in which it hopes to broaden children’s and caregivers’ understanding of the world–areas in which it has expertise, an understanding of promising approaches, and alignment with community priorities. Thanks for continuing to noodle on this question.

    • Thanks, Jeanne! After reading your comment I spent the morning playing with two one-year-olds and a three-year-old, and thinking about this. As I watched them play I thought about how they couldn’t care less if the toys they were manipulating were new or held new content. But novelty attracts and interests their parents, and keeps them (the parents) engaged. So one way to have a potentially “broadening” impact on a young child is to introduce new things which they might not digest as yet, but their parents will, and can circle back to it later when kids are older.

      • You are right that young children usually don’t care about content; it’s an adult construct. But they may be fascinated by bugs, dinosaurs, animals, light, stones, tools, filling and dumping, moving water, etc. which can deliver content, or at least lay the foundation for understanding principles and facts they encounter later. The scoops, buckets, magnifiers, pieces of fabric they can use; what other children are doing; their parents’ answers to their questions broaden their world. The parent’s interest is huge. An excellent book in this area is The Hungry Mind: The origins of Curiosity in Childhood by Susan Engel.

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