A month ago, a donor offered to buy the Peoria PlayHouse Children’s Museum life-sized replicas of three dinosaur heads: Tyrannosaurus Rex, Allosaurus, and Velociraptor. This offer coincided with a decision to re-envision the display on our Sand Porch. The Sand Porch features a sand table with kinetic sand, which children love and play with for hours. It also features plants from various biomes, and bins of collections related to those biomes. Children barely notice the plants, and only attend to collections to bury them in the sand. So with the offer of these dinosaurs, we saw an opportunity to re-envision the Sand Porch display to show visitors things that get dug out of the earth: Dinosaur bones. Arrowheads. Fossils. This decision was supported by a conversation with our Teacher Team (a group of twelve classroom teachers who advise and work with us), who, without knowing about the offered donation, suggested that we should find artifacts such as arrowheads to support using the Sand Porch to teach about anthropology.
The Tyrannosaurus Rex arrived on Friday – too large in its packaging to fit through our door! We unwrapped it and brought it into a classroom, where it lives for the moment.
Now the same donor is offering us hundreds of amazing artifacts collected over a lifetime. Beautiful egg-shaped polished stones. Both real and fake fossils of crinoids and ammonites and other ancient species that I can’t even remember the name of. A giant shark tooth. Arrowheads and axe heads. Coral. All sorts of shells. Old glass bottles dug up from his backyard.
I want to say yes to every one of these, because they inspire wonder and awe in me, and I can imagine so many ways to use and display them that would inspire wonder and awe in children. But I wonder if there are ethical considerations I should keep in mind. These considerations, and my accompanying questions, are as follows:
We are not a collecting institution
I do not believe these are museum-quality pieces. And, to my understanding, they were offered first to a local collecting institution, which chose not to accept them. Also, the donor knows that we would use these for program purposes, allowing children to handle them.
That said, we certainly cannot accession them into a collection, conserve them, or store or display them in a climate controlled environment. Do we have an obligation to ensure that these are NOT museum-quality pieces? What else do we need to do to ensure that we are not disregarding any ethical considerations as put forth by AAM or EdCom?
We are a children’s museum, and children want to touch things
Sarah Schertz, who was interviewed for last week’s post, noted (in a passage edited out of the published interview) that teachers and students love the museum because “everything is made for them and they are supposed to interact with it…. which gives them the message that we value them and value their learning and their education, and that learning is important– people took the time to make a place that is just for them. They are encouraged to touch and interact and experience all of it.”
If we display the objects we are being offered, we will need put some behind glass, as they are too fragile to bear regular handling. For those available to touch, we will need to secure them in place and encourage children to touch them gently.
Will using real artifacts compromise the idea that this is a place “just for them”? Will it make them feel like the museum is less child-centric?
When do gifts determine programming, instead of vice versa?
In accepting this gift, even if we do not accession the objects, we will be creating a new type of touchable collection, one that needs care and attention not needed by the plastic boats and dolls and wooden trains that populate our exhibits. And along with the opportunity to program around these artifacts is the obligation to program around and use them. What will we do with the beautiful egg-shaped stones? How can we use them to teach children about minerals? How will we use the shells, which are not from anywhere near Peoria?
The objects we want to put on display will require vitrines. It will likely take us years to raise money, design, and build appropriate cabinetry in areas where these objects might deepen understanding of existing exhibits.This may need to be the focus of our end-of-year fundraising drive, and will certainly require additional staff resources for fundraising and exhibit creation.
What are the implications of accepting a gift that might influence museum programming? Don’t all gifts – or nearly all – influence museum programming? What is the line between gifts that support existing initiatives and gifts that require new ones?
How do we inspire children to become “explorers and creators”?
The mission of the museum is:
The Peoria PlayHouse Children’s Museum provides children with the tools and inspiration they need to be explorers and creators of the world. We do this in part through understanding, supporting, and promoting play in the fullest sense of the word, one that includes imagination and creativity.
What is the role of artifacts in inspiring children to become explorers and creators? How do artifacts in cases co-exist with play? Do we risk “mission drift” in accepting these pieces?
So – should we accept this gift?