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:
- Children’s museums are museums because they were originally object- and collections-based, and aligned themselves with the museum field.
- Children’s museums are museums because they are spaces for three-dimensional experiential learning.
- 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.
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.
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?