For the past few months I have been working an article related to children’s museums, and thinking a great deal about the period from the 1960s to the 1980s, when children’s museums transformed from spaces with collections-based exhibits aimed at elementary school children into play spaces for the under-10 set. At first I understood this transformation as the work of the Boston Children’s Museum, outlined below. But I now see it as a multi-phase transformation, and want to better understand the impetus and benefits of the second phase of change.
In this first phase, the Boston Children’s Museum introduced exhibits that were physically interactive (children could manipulate them), rather than in glass cases. Their work is outlined in Boston Stories, a book from the Boston Children’s Museum (BCM) that was available for free download on the BCM website, and now seems to have disappeared. (BCM staff – Please bring back this wonderful resource!)
Before this innovation children’s museums featured collections that were similar to those of other museums. The collections were displayed in cases, like those you would see at a natural history museum. Here is a description from Helen Fisher, Director of the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, from 1960, from an article in Curator.
A children’s museum does, however, look like a standard museum. With its collections and exhibit galleries, it is certainly similar in physical appearance. But from that point we take off on a tangent, because the basic purpose of a children’s museum is quite different from that of an “adult” museum…. In children’s museums the emphasis is very definitely on interpretation; our prime function is education.… For instance, we might be fortunate enough to acquire something on the order of Bell’s original telephone, but its greatest value for us would be its use in illustrating the development of communication, with less fanfare attached to its historic connotations. Our doll collection at the Brooklyn Children’s Museum does include many unique examples, but these dolls are used not as an end in themselves but to show aspects of other cultures. Actually, our visitors and their response to the exhibits are more important than the collections themselves.
By contrast, BCM’s groundbreaking 1960s exhibition “What’s Inside?” used interactive exhibit components to show children the insides of familiar objects and scenes, from a flower to a manhole. Spock writes:
I was looking for a topic that would move us away from displays in exhibit cases (the visitor experience at that time). I was interested in eliciting visible audience behavior that would indicate what was happening for the visitor. So, the purpose of doing interactive exhibits, for me, was in eliciting feedback as much as it was exciting kids about something.
Based on the success of “What’s Inside?” the BCM team designed other interactive exhibits, spending time thinking about what was important, and worth learning about. Another early exhibit was “What if you Couldn’t… An Exhibit about Special Needs,” which used artifacts – prosthetics, wheelchairs, braille typewriters – to help children understand what it feels like to have special needs, and how to treat people who are blind, or in a wheelchair. These exhibits were radical in their emphasis on interactivity, but still addressed older children (not toddlers) and had a clear teaching goal.
BCM’s earliest exhibit for toddlers, Playspace, emerged in the 1960s: an era of rapidly rising crime rates, when families were finding “that the [Boston Children’s] museum was one of the few places where you could find a good, safe, publicly accessible early childhood play environment.” The museum found itself needing to address the growing audience of very young children. Spock was at first uncomfortable with this exhibit:
I believed museums – all museums for all visitors – were about offering provocative experiences with interesting things and significant ideas…. In the 1960s we had elementary-school-aged kids learning how movies moved by animating strips of paper in a zoetrope, interpreting replica artifacts from an ancient Greek archeological site, participating as guests in a formal Japanese tea ceremony, stimulating cross-generational conversations in Grandmother’s Attic, or dissecting and matching up the parts of cut gladiolas at a table in What’s Inside?. All these were important and serious museum experiences that used interesting things to explore challenging ideas.
Playspace, by contrast, offered very young children a place to “practice their gross motor skills in a safe place.” But it also had another agenda. Spock adds:
By installing cozy seating at the edges of play spaces Jeri [Robinson, the creator of Playspace] thought it might encourage adults to observe, compare and speculate among each other about the developing capacities and learning behaviors of those kids…. I realized that for me if the parents were the learners, the preschool kids were the exhibit – the vehicle – for delivering sophisticated understanding to the adults in much the same way as the school-age child’s encounter with a challenging experiment at a science museum delivers science learning.
Clearly the success of this exhibit, and the growing audience of preschoolers at children’s museums, led to more exhibits like Playspace. But in an era of cell phones, in spaces that forego the atmosphere of object-based exhibits in favor of spaces like Playspace, we have lost the learner in this equation.
The second phase in the reinvention of children’s museums is still a mystery to me, and I am in search of articles or people who can illuminate this moment for me. It is the transition from “What’s Inside?” and “What if you Couldn’t…” to exhibitions like the water table and climbing toy.
I am concerned about this moment because I think this is the point at which children’s museums begin to focus on interactivity over content. Children love the water table – it is a fantastic sensory experience. With programming, children can also learn about boats and concepts around what floats, or the environment of rivers, or the physics of water flow. However, without adult facilitation, children are unlikely to exhibit significant learning. A 2001 study, again published in Curator, found that “while some exhibits… seem favorable to a wide range of types of learning, exhibits such as … the River [water table] show relatively few types of each [type of learning].”
The popularity of the interactive exhibit, and thus children’s museums, led to the rapid creation of hundreds of children’s museums which still continues today. It is fantastic that people love children’s museums so much. But somehow, between the early 20th century and now, we have gained popularity but lost something important. How can we cultivate a love of museums when children’s museums have little relation to art, history, or natural history museums? How can we teach problem solving when we don’t present problems? How can we teach information when we don’t curate around a big idea?