Why are children’s museums museums? – Take 3

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.

Phase 1

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.

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.


An image of the Brooklyn Children’s Museum in 1949, from the Brooklyn Eagle. Accessed at https://www.newspapers.com/clip/9228183/bcm_1949/

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.

Phase 2

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.

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

The water table at the Peoria PlayHouse Children’s Museum.

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?


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

  1. Responding to one aspect of this issue, there are water tables and there are water tables. Almost all encourage pretend play, which is terrifically important for learning. Well-designed water tables can also facilitate children’s learning without much adult intervention. Children are required to work cooperatively to achieve outcomes, to figure out different ways to manipulate the water flow, to experiment and predict outcomes (although they won’t describe their play in that manner), and to understand concepts such as dams, waterfalls, and locks.

    • All this is potentially true. But the little research we have tells us that, unfortunately, there is no evidence that this potential learning is being realized. I would argue that, if this learning is at the heart of what we do, we need to invest in research as a field, to generate evidence that these museums work (or potentially find out aspects that aren’t working).

  2. I love the fact that many of these museums were so ahead of their time in engaging children. With regards to your final paragraph, I don’t think that interactivity and content have to be mutually exclusive but I agree that there must be considerable thought going into designing meaning into exhibits. in a way, it’s not up to museums to decide how much people will take away from their experience because you never know how much knowledge that they brought in in the the first place. We just need to design the experience well so that it appeals to a wide variety of visitors, encourages new visitors and keeps people coming back for more. If children have positive experiences they will want to return again and again with their families. In the meantime in the background, museums have to stay true to their vision, continue with scholarship and caring for their collections. Hopefully maturity will increase the visitor’s thirst for knowledge but with so much competition out there for people’s time I think that they want to be educated and be entertained at the same time. I must say I’m not a fan of Lego in museums under almost any circumstance (even if they have reconstructed the Colosseum) for the very reasons you outlined in your final paragraph.

  3. Pingback: Play is the "Content" in Children's Museums - Museum Commons

  4. In preparing for an interview about early experiences in museums that may have influenced my career, I am remembering being awed by some of the traditional displays and architecture in museums, even as a young child. The cases and large-scale spaces conveyed a sense of preciousness and fabulousness that were different from my ordinary life. I loved hands-on activities as a child at home, and would have enjoyed those, too, had I encountered them in a museum; I help develop them in the museum where I work today. But I still see a place for traditional displays for adults and children, and I wonder how many children’s museums, or any museums, consider the sense of awe or amazement as one of their desired goals. After all, those are so related to the concepts of mindfulness and gratitude that are everywhere discussed nowadays.

  5. Pingback: How do we engage parents in children’s museums? | Museum Questions

  6. Pingback: Do Children's Exhibits Privilege One Point of View? - Museum Commons

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