Monday, June 15, 2020

How Does Your Learning Framework Help Navigate Covid19?

Photo credit: Vergeront

Rebecca Shulman, Peoria PlayHouse Children’s Museum’s Director, shared their newly completed learning framework with me recently. She also mentioned how the museum has been able to reinvent what it does in a timeframe that would have previously been unimaginable. In reviewing their at-home offerings and aligning them with their framework, Rebecca wrote, the “Framework has been invaluable.”


In a time that is in great motion, museums of every size and type have had to be resourceful, courageous, and nimble. These qualities are being tested again and again, month after month as museums move from closing, to planning, re-opening, to rebuilding and recovery.  


Perhaps unaware at the time, museums have been preparing for times like this. They have developed foundational documents like strategic plans to guide long-term thinking; grown staff capacity, fostered relationships and goodwill with the community and partners, and deepened understanding of their potential to do well and to do good. In responding to new and unexpected opportunities and learning from successes and missteps, museums have been preparing for moments like this by investing in themselves.


Whether a museum is in a quiet phase, planning to re-open, thinking about rebuilding—or all of these at once—the challenge is not just getting through this time, but navigating well and coming through the pandemic crisis stronger and more essential than ever.


Learning Frameworks for a Time Like This

Those investments, the strategic plan, facility plan, marketing plan, staff development plan, and the learning framework are valuable resources for the process of uncovering the museum’s next and better version of itself.


A learning framework transforms a museum’s instincts about learners, learning, and its learning experiences into a set of shared understandings that can be acted on in a collaborative way and over time.


If a learning framework hasn’t seen much use, it’s time to get reacquainted. Why? Because here is a working tool grounded in a museum’s vision, mission, and values; focused on learning experiences; and intent on building learning value. As a kind of magnetic north for a museum’s learning interests, it is essential for staying true to the core purpose and pedagogy, serving audiences, and being agile in adapting to new situations, challenges, and opportunities.


Even if a framework has enjoyed active use, the context in which it is now being applied is in flux. These shifts are also openings for where the museum can be active, responsive, and innovative. Moreover, these frameworks by their nature have some attributes that make them especially helpful at times like this. They:

·       Distill what is most important about a museum’s learning experiences 

Photo credit: Capital Group

·       Are both firm and flexible

·       Keep the learner at the center

·       Connect

·       Help in reimagining what’s possible

·       Are tools for learning

Frameworks distill what is most important about a museum’s learning experiences; they serve as an anchor in times of change.

A learning framework articulates a museum’s foundational ideas about how children and adults engage and learn in the museum’s experiences within its spaces, online, and at other locations. By highlighting its view of learning* and connecting with theory and research in its learning principles*, a framework helps a museum stay true to what is core and where it believes it can be effective.

This is helpful because, when a museum closes temporarily, rethinks its experiential offerings, or serves new visitors in new ways, a firm connection to what’s core is critical. That connection also allows it to build on its strengths; use time, money, and staff expertise wisely; and be nimble.


If a museum is reaching its audience at home on social media, through distributed play packs, or at the re-opened museum; if learners are alone, in a camp, or in a family group, a framework can be helpful in exploring and thinking about what is central to the museum’s learning experiences. For instance:

-        The nature of the expectations that learners have for these new learning experience encounters

-        How the museum’s learning experiences are much more than just the activities it presents

-        What aspects of its view of learning are especially relevant to engaging learners in contexts such as the at-home museum or post-COVID museum environments

-        How it might promote social-emotional learning and contribute to a sense of well-being and security during an uncertain and difficult time


Frameworks are both firm and flexible; they provide focus, adapt to various contexts, and offer relevant choices.

A framework makes a museum’s critical elements of learning experiences, their functions, and the relationships among them clearer and visible. Shared and fairly stable over time, a framework allows a museum to revisit and thoughtfully explore these elements and the many possible ways they might come together in learning experiences for families, school groups, or toddlers. Yet, a framework is not prescriptive; it allows for interpretation and adapting to various conditions and groups.


This is helpful because, when conditions change—as they have recently—when new needs become visible, and when priorities shift, a museum can have confidence in the tested elements and ideas it is working with while using them in new circumstances.


In developing on-line programs, a museum may adapt an existing program, develop a new one, import another museum’s activities, or do all three. For any of these, its framework helps maintain a focus on its primary interests, its learners, and areas of expertise considering the context of a new situation. A museum might find it’s helpful to reflect on and explore:

-        Where it has a solid track record related to particular audience or age groups; experiences in indoor or outdoor settings; facilitation strategies; or particular content or skills

-        How it can adapt and update past camps for a new format, settings, and expectations

-        How social media and digital learning fit into its framework and how it understands its learning experiences. Is digital learning a long-term learning experience platform* like exhibits and environments or community engagement? Is it a short-term, on-line programmatic strategy?


Frameworks keep the learner at the center; they focus on individuals engaged in the process of learning

How a museum views its learners—whether they are children, adults, parents, caregivers, educators, experts, or staff—influences how it shapes experiences for them. A view of the museum’s learners* gives priority to the characteristics of learners that a museum intends to engage and support through varied experiences on site, on line, or across the community. One museum may view its learners as active, inquisitive, and caring; another may view its learners as empathetic, thoughtful, and social.


The learner at the center of the framework is important because, what is at the center is valued. Placing the learner there places their capabilities, potentials, and interests at the heart of learning experience planning. And while a museum’s view of its learners is unlikely to change with a shifting context, those qualities might assume new meaning, be expressed differently, or be engaged differently.


Planning for program participants or virtual visitors as learners who are often reflective, curious, or social invites a museum to think about how to engage and support those qualities in at-home surroundings or in a re-designed post-COVID museum. In the context of its learning framework, a museum might explore:

-        How being curious is expressed in a familiar environment (home) rather than unfamiliar environment (the museum); how being active as a learner at home varies from being active as a learner at the museum; ways of supporting learners being social while maintaining social distancing at the museum

-        How it can support the learner’s agency when it is engaging them remotely in multiple at-home museum environments

-        Ways to engage communication skills, research skills, organizational skills, and critical thinking skills in real-world, real-life contexts


Frameworks connect. They connect ideas; help connect learners with ideas, with the museum, and to the world.

In effect, learning frameworks deconstruct and re-construct a museum’s learning experiences in order to create learning connections. They identify and clarify major elements about learning experiences at the museum and highlight how these elements relate and work together to create rich, layered experiences for a wide range of learners across varied settings. Working with connections articulated in the framework, helps in engaging the learner and their interests. It facilitates connections with previous experiences and lays the groundwork for future connections.


This is helpful, especially now, as museums seek ways to reach out, connect with, and support their learners. In a time of social distancing, museums search for ways to promote social interaction. At a time when people are limiting their community activities, museums are looking for ways for people to meet, connect, and enjoy positive interactions. And at a time when museums are engaging their learners remotely, they are looking for ways their learners can make meaningful connections with personal interests, content, materials, and other activities.


As a museum reaches out, connects with its learners virtually, and tries to strengthen relationships with them, it might think about:   

-        What it already knows about extending learner engagement in the museum setting that can inform at-home museum experiences; how making drawings, photos, or videos and uploading them helps support connections

-        How a family or siblings of multiple ages might get into the act and work together creatively and collaboratively

-        In what ways experiences can help learners feel closer to their neighborhood, community, and to the museum

Photo credit: Vergeront
Frameworks help reimagine what’s possible; they help speed up the process of reimagining.   

The physical environment is an essential dimension of the learning experiences museums create. The settings where exhibits, programs, co-created projects, and art installations take place allow museums to deliver learning value in ways distinct from other formal and informal learning settings. The pandemic’s wide-ranging impact on museum experiences has dramatically changed the museum’s primary place and engagement strategies*. The same, tried-and-true ways of developing and presenting learning experiences and spaces will not work as they have until only 

recently. But these shifts are also opportunities for the museum to expand its thinking about environments and experiences.


This is helpful because a museum’s framework and repertoire of learning experiences are sources of creative thinking especially when old ways don’t work and nimbleness is needed. A wider range of learning experiences surfaces new insights, makes them more accessible and capable of being added to a fresh mix.


With a shift to virtual, low-contact or no contact spaces, appearing in living rooms across a city or region, the museum environment is experiencing dramatic change. More than ever, museums need to think about spaces, their features and affordances and explore questions as basic as, what is an on-line learning environment? And think about:

-        Aspects of at-home learning settings that serve museum learners well: over which conditions in these settings a museum has, or doesn’t have, control; how various conditions support or interfere with exploration; how at-home museum activities can work together and build on one another to extend interest and build impact

-        Whether virtual experiences are a new learning experience platform like exhibits or programs and should be developed as such or are an on-line format of museum programs

-        Repurposing outdoor spaces to serve as learning experience platforms: the park next door or the big, relatively empty parking lot

-        Putting the neighborhood in play or the city itself as a platform for a series of choreographed learning experiences

Frameworks are tools for learning; they are friendly to thinking, learning, and an experimental mindset.

Learning frameworks are multi-purpose tools that help in making choices, planning experiences, enhancing activities, setting goals, and evaluating impacts*. They help a museum understand where it is, where it can go, and what it is learning along the way. Regardless of how long a museum is closed, goes virtual, or re-opens with COVID adaptations, the learning experiences from this time period are now a part of who a museum is and is becoming.

This is important because, not only do frameworks support learning for visitors, they also support learning for the museum. Lessons and insights from these times emerge from what it has learned from its learners and what it has learned about itself; from insights and lessons it is aware of and from those that are not yet visible.

A museum that can ask itself new questions generates new inputs into its thinking and expands its understanding of possible new ways to support learning. Questions might not be resolved in short-order, nor ever be addressed fully. Discussions and related practice, however, can create movement and set the museum’s sights ahead. Questions, big and small, near and far may include:

-        What is the museum talking about with and learning from its visitors now? What can it learn from learners’ perceptions of this time and its meaning for them?

-        How is the museum bringing an equity, diversity, and inclusion lens to its new work?

-        How can it benchmark programs and learning experiences for this period or phase? How does it intend to evaluate these new programs? Determine what a full schedule of virtual offerings looks like; and count participation/participants?  

-        How is the museum preparing now to look back and understand this time from the future? What traces or documentation is it collecting to be able to look back and reflect?

-        What must the museum need to know to plan for what’s next?

Even if a museum is without a formal learning framework, it can explore these questions and situations in developing and designing, or redeveloping and redesigning, learning experiences. And, while it may not seem to be the optimal time to develop a learning framework, it could be if a team of staff is not actively engaged during shutdown. Museum Notes learning framework resources follow.

Learning Frameworks:

• Question-powered Learning Frameworks

Ten Lessons from Learning Frameworks

Driving for Learning Frameworks 

Updating Learning Frameworks


* Denotes some of the typical elements of learning frameworks


Monday, April 20, 2020

Imagining Interactive Museum Experiences Post-COVID 19

A question swirling about in museum association emails, social media, museum colleague conversations, on blogs, and soon, no doubt, in museum journals is: how will museums manage in a post-COVID-19 environment? The scope of this question is far-reaching and overwhelming, affecting funding, attendance, programs, exhibits, facilities, impact, etc. Difficult as this question is, we don’t have the luxury of side-stepping it with a shrug of the shoulders.

We do know the COVID-19 pandemic has changed our world in profound ways and that includes museums, cultural, and public institutions including zoos, orchestras, libraries, schools, and playgrounds.

In short order, museums have risen to the occasion with creative, adaptive responses to the pandemic and shelter-in-place orders across the country. I have been impressed with how museums have responded and adapted to a complex, rapidly changing environment. Their public presence, messaging, and variety of experiences have quickly found their way onto social media and into e-mail boxes. Many museums are delivering their missions more actively than ever in spite of the challenges. They have stepped into a more visible public role in helping the public understand COVID-19 and pandemics, working with partners to reach out and support communities, becoming a resource for parents who are homeschooling, and documenting the pandemic itself.

We are in the midst of a gigantic experiment that will push museums in ways and directions they hadn’t imagined. Just what the nature and implications of the pandemic are and how they will unfold will take months, if not years or even decades, to become apparent.

Full of trade-offs and tough decisions in this dynamic environment, these times are, and will be, challenging and full of change. Some change will be within the control of an organization, its director, and trustees while others will be well beyond any organization’s control. Some shifts may be transitional, temporarily useful and lead to new adaptations. Other shifts will, undoubtedly be more difficult and complex, especially initially. As public spaces where many people come together, museums’ physical settings and beloved objects are likely to be problematic in returning to business as usual.

We can only guess at the changes we will be encountering. On re-opening, there is likely to be pent-up demand to visit familiar and favorite public spaces and do something new. People will be likely to look forward to going somewhere that has been off limits for months; museum visitation may enjoy an early bounce. At the same time, some people  are likely to stay away out of health concerns. Many who do visit will return with new expectations around hygiene in public spaces. If, or when, a second peak of the virus arrives, museum visits are likely to plunge again. Other unknowns are how long post-COVID-19 concerns will affect attendance, whether visiting patterns will vary regionally, or if particular types of museums will be impacted more.

The interactive museum experience that invites touching is likely to undergo transformations in a post-COVID-19 world. With hands-on, multi-sensory engagement with objects and materials at the heart of children’s museum and science center experiences, the impact is likely to be significant. However, since most, if not all, types of museums rely on hands-on, interactive spaces and experiences to some extent in their galleries, programs, family spaces, and festivals, changes to interactive experiences will affect the field more broadly.

2020 in the Rearview Mirror
I believe we will look back at 2020 and recognize the beginnings of a generational shift in museums. Less of a dramatic departure from current approaches, we are likely to see new versions of current practices that are grounded in:
• A commitment to the fundamental value of learning from experience—objects, social interactions,
The learner as active, engaged, curious
relationships, and play across the life-span
• Recent trends in the field especially where museums have been intentional around equity, diversity, and inclusion
• A view of the visitor as curious, active, motivated, and engaged
• A collaborative, creative response of many museums to the pandemic in rethinking the interactive experience

Some changes are already underway, even if emergent and fluid. Channeling the thinking and creativity of museums around the world, they reflect museums’ complex, integrated functioning of spaces and environments, objects and materials, staffing and interaction, operational practices, and resources. Adapting practices from other public-facing settings like libraries, gyms, cruise ships, hospitals, and grocery stores, museum operations and services are going beyond higher standards for cleaning and hygiene. New awareness and practices are differentiating among the variety of loose parts. While digitizing museum content and experiences and presenting them to audiences remotely will undoubtedly be part of this new scenario, museums are also innovating around the value of direct experience with objects and other people. 

In considering what will make returning visitors feel safe and comfortable and nourish the public’s trust and affection for them, museums will be drilling into what is core to their value. Children’s museums will be looking for new ways to stay true to their fundamental purpose as champions for children, valuing interactions and relationships with others and the material world, and the essential role of play in children’s development. Resilient museums will work to be nimble in keeping the visitor at the center and finding new ways to support meaningful engagement and durable connections.
Looking Ahead
Considered both a disaster and an opportunity, these times present creative and innovative opportunities to become better versions of ourselves.

Some of the shifts I have been noticing and thinking about are highlighted below. More like hunches than promises or predictions, they are far from comprehensive. Hovering around the interactive experience, they are adapted to a particular museum, its community, audience, and mission. Because they are more like shifting currents in museum practices than completely new directions, here they are cast as changes in emphasis, from where we are currently to what we are seeing more of.

Recognizing changes in the learning group
Currently… in most museums, children are viewed as a distinct audience group with parents and caregivers as an important, but separate, audience group.
We’re seeing more of …families actively learning together. With families sheltering together at home, parents stepping into the homeschooling role, and parents as more active participants in the at-home science experiments, families are playing a larger, more active role as multi-generational learning groups.

Working on multiple fronts
Currently … museums describe themselves as destinations, recognized public spaces that serve locals and tourists. To serve their visitors, museums develop experiences to bring visitors to the museum.
We’re seeing more of … museums developing themselves as multi-dimensional resources, creating more experiences that reach their audiences in multiple locations and through diverse formats. These include activities broadcast into homes, home-based and mobile projects in a park and neighborhood, partnering with experts on current topics, and found encounters.

Prioritizing the interests of visitors
Currently … museums work to understand the interests of their visitors and reach out to invite their input into museum-created experiences.
We’re seeing more of … a greater permeability between the museum and its community and visitors that follows and supports visitor and learner interests and ideas. Self-directed explorers and learners are children starting a neighborhood newsletter, laying out a solar system across city blocks, setting their own challenges, and families originating content through stories and projects. 

Opening up for new kinds of engagement
Currently … visitors’ person-to-person interactions occur at the museum with staff and facilitators, family members and complement self-guided experiences.
We’re seeing more of … the museum as an instigator of family engagement. Museum-inspired ideas launch family explorations which are then shared with the museum and other doers. Teddy bears in the window involve families in a similar activity at home that is shared with others; families go on treasure hunts with maps, flashlights, and backpacks and share their adventures; the museum sends its recorded stories to families to share.
Photo credit:

Shifting from immersive environments to immersive experiences
Currently … interactive environments are favorite spaces in many children’s museums. These rooms, settings, and vehicles are familiar in the child’s world: the grocery store, post office, the bus.
We’re seeing more of … immersive experience. Less like containers for activities or prompting scripts from daily life, immersive experiences wrap, bathe, and envelop the visitor and engage the senses. Sometimes relatively simple full body explorations with color, light, movement, shadow, and sound, they can also be more complex motion-activated experiences, foot-activated floor projection systems, and visual tricks. 

Re-framing experience for a new context
Currently … children’s museums and science centers offer self-guided exhibit activities, demonstrations, and programs, often planned to fit within timed segments of a field trip visit, classroom activity, birthday party, or curriculum topic.
We’re seeing more of … projects that unfold over time, evolve through multiple iterations, and respond to new ideas. Initiated by motivated family learning groups, they respond to a museum’s challengeinvestigate ideas through drawings and research; head outdoors; and use digital experiences as departure points.

Improvising with materials
Currently … objects and materials that encourage hands-on exploration invite children to push and carry, build and take apart, pretend with and create, test and transform.
We’re seeing more of … ways to not lose the richness of abundant materials and objects to hygiene concerns and cleaning needs. Museums are finding new ways to distinguish among tools that are easy to wipe down frequently; volumes of consummables in smaller quantities frequently resupplied; multiple sets of props rotated and cleaned frequently; quarantining objects and materials; and rethinking media like sand, rubber granules, and bubbles.

Keeping close
Currently … museums are staying top of mind with frequent, helpful messaging across multiple platforms.  
We’re seeing more of … messaging as high-engagement dialogue. More than ever, communication is a two-way dynamic that strengthens museum relationships, whether it is personal connections developing between families with Zoom-based facilitators like Children's Museum of Houston's Mr. O; visitors sharing what they are making with the museum; or children working on projects at home and sharing them with residents at a retirement home.

Rainbows as a symbol of resilience. (Louisiana Children's Museum)

Monday, March 30, 2020

When Play's the Thing

Originally posted November 2016

Perhaps now more than ever we need play in our new stay-at-home lives. Children and adults need the agency of play and the ways that play transports them and transforms their everyday worlds. —Play that says the world doesn’t have to be the way it is today. —Play that expresses possibility, delight, and hope.

While play as usual is not currently happening in our museums, many museum educators are very involved in preparing on-line activities that can invite play at home, in small spaces, and outdoors. These days are invitations to museums to think about play in new ways, to reflect on and understand play better, and to plan for more, new, other, incidental, and everyday ways to encourage play now and when museums open their doors again.

And...remember,,, play yourself!

Social distancing during statue play 

Museums are among the few public institutions where play is not only tolerated, but is encouraged. Play has a presence across museums and it is not strictly for children. At The Strong, National Museum of Play, it is the focus of the entire museum. Sometimes the topic of an exhibit, or a strategy for exploration in programs, play might also be the inspiration for reimagining exhibit experiences as the National Building Museum did at The Beach. Games are used to enhance learning in museums just as role-play is used to bring history to life. Science museum exhibits are designed to create playful learning experiences. Increasingly, museums are adding nature play experiences as the Museum of Life and Science has with Hideaway Woods. Play is sometimes a question explored as it was at a Toledo Museum of Art installation.

Concern with learning, well-being, and 21st century skills has given a boost across museums to better understanding how play intersects with creativity, language development, learning, health, and social-emotional development. Not surprisingly, this positions play as a driving idea in many museum learning frameworks.

But how do we understand play? 

As pervasive as it is, understanding play is no simple matter. Play is complex and multi-faceted. For instance, we may not realize that children—and adults—move seamlessly among play, exploration, and learning without being aware of it. And because play is seemingly so familiar, we often assume that it is self-explanatory. There are multiple theories of play, various play taxonomies, and different types of play. Play hovers at the intersection of multiple disciplines but is not an established academic discipline itself. It is unlikely that staff with degrees in play studies will guide a museum’s exploration of play. Yet, like any cornerstone idea for any museum, having a shared understanding of play is invaluable, if not critical.

Are you and your museum grounded in play? What aspects of play are important at your museum? What is its role in the museum? How does it relate to other priorities and how does it contribute value? Answering these questions is not quick and easy, nor is digging deeper to be more grounded in an understanding of play. There are, however, ways to go about answering them. 

Get started by jumping in anywhere in the activities below. Proceed in no particular order.
  1. Play. Play yourself. Play with blocks, bubbles, pieces of fabric, sticks, large pieces of fabric, cardboard boxes, tape, stones.  
  2. Read about play: articlesjournalsblogsreports, and books.  
  3. Invite and collect childhood play memories from staff and board.
  4. Compile collected play memories, combing through them for threads and themes. Incorporate 
    What are staff play memories?
    some into the annual report, the museum’s website, grant proposals.
  5. Develop a definition of play for your museum with your colleagues.
  6. Compare your museum’s definition of play with those from 2-3 other museums.
  7. Gather 5 definitions of play from researchers and theorists.
  8. Add more loose parts to exhibits, programs, outdoor spaces, increasing the variety and quantity.
  9. Think about and explain how those loose parts will inspire and extend play; incorporate these ideas into staff training.
  10. Hire people who are OK with loose parts that are varied and that migrate among exhibits.
  11. Observe play in your museum: families at play, couples at play, children at play.
  12. Record observations about play in your museum. What kinds of play are you seeing? What does it look like? 
  13. How do families play together?
  14. From your observations, identify 3 examples of how visitors appear to be learning through play.
  15. Talk with other staff about play. How does it look in different exhibits; among children of different ages, for children with different needs and abilities; for teens and adults?
  16. Practice distinguishing among different types of play: dramatic play, constructive play, exploratory play.
  17. Carefully read graphic panels in your galleries. What do they convey about the museum's interest in play?  
  18. Dig into the differences among pretend play, imaginative play, and dramatic play. Are there any? Is one better suited to your museum? Why?
  19. Observe play in different settings outside the museum: on playgrounds, in parks, in stores, on street corners, and in natural settings.
  20. Talk with parents about play: how do they see their child’s activity at the museum in relation to play? How do they see their role in facilitating it? How do they see play connecting with learning?
  21. Talk with teens and with adults about play and how they see themselves playing.
    Play with staff (Photo credit: Fantastic Norway)

  22. Develop a perspective on games and gaming for your museum.
  23. Look at other “big ideas” at your museum like early literacy, creativity, inquiry, making, learning, exploring, executive function, etc. How does play connect with them? Draw, map, or explain the connections.
  24. Develop 3 questions you want to know more about play. Figure out how to go about answering them.
  25. Develop a perspective on the role of adults in children’s play at your museum.
  26. Locate responsibility for play in position descriptions.
  27. Set up play training for museum staff–all museum staff.
  28. Sign up for play training for yourself.
  29. Search for play taxonomies: Bob HughesCorinne HuttMildred PartenDr. StuartBrown.
  30. Develop a logic model for play and its outcomes at your museum. 
  31. Play. Play together as a staff. 

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Children in Museums

First published in February 2014, this post looks into the growing presence of children across museums of all types and begins a series that explores their presence in museums from a variety of perspectives.  

There are children’s museums and then there are museums children visit with parents, grandparents, and school groups. From a museum perspective–children’s museums on the one hand and traditional museums children visit on the other–having children as visitors can have quite different meaning. For children, however, the experience between one type of museum and another might be less than museum people generally assume.  

Memories of Museums from Childhood

Before there were children’s museums in most cities, children went to museums, liked museums, and remembered them. In my experience, they still do; and there are good reasons for it. 
The Wood Gatherer

My friend Mary grew up in Milwaukee and remembers vividly going to the Milwaukee Art Museum with her friends Jimmy and Linda, on their own, without adults. Frequently, even weekly in the summer, they would walk down Astor Street and cross Juneau Park and get into the Art Museum for free. They would always visit their favorite paintings. Mary’s was The Wood Gatherer by Jules Bastien LePage. Then they’d each get an ice cream sandwich at the canteen for 10 cents. Fifty years later, Mary was at the Musee d’Orsay in Paris and came face-to-face with her favorite painting, on loan from the Milwaukee Art Museum. It stopped her in her tracks, brought back a flood of childhood and neighborhood memories, and made her trip. 

Sweden’s Nobel prize-winning poet Tomas Tranströmer, writes in Memories Look at Me, A Memoir about going to museums as a child in Stockholm. He starts off, “As a child, I was attracted to museums. First the Natural History Museum. What a building! Gigantic, Babylonian, inexhaustible.” (Translated from Swedish by Robin Fulton) Tranströmer was first taken to the museum when he was about 5 years old. At the entrance were 2 elephant skeletons, “…guardians of the gateway to the miraculous.” Inspired by what he saw, Tranströmer visited every second Sunday, started his own collections, and one day, met a professor, “…one of the guardian angels who appeared now and then in my childhood and touched me with its wings.”

While children visit children’s museums now, they also visit “big museums.” I was at a café in St Paul last year and overheard a mother and her 3 boys ranging from 3-8 years talking about going to the museum. Since we were several blocks from Minnesota Children’s Museum, I asked if they were headed there. The middle child said they were going to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts to see the Terracotta Warriors. His brother added with emphasis that it was their third visit. A friend says his sister takes her 4 grand children to the local art museum. Each of the children has a favorite painting and insists on visiting it on every visit. Ranging from 5-10 years, they have lively discussions about the merits of their paintings.

In late 2013, 12- year old Jake caught the attention of many museum professionals as he posted, “21 ways how I would create an amazing museum” on his blog, Jake’s Bones. His list about making museums awesome for everyone, especially for children, not only demonstrates extensive museum going, but also reveals an engaged and incisive observer and thinker about the museum experience. His astute, visitor-centered ideas take children, their interests, and capabilities seriously with recommendations such as, “Don’t hide the experts,” “Link exhibits to things in the real world,” and  “Have information for all levels of knowledge.”

Recently I watched as 2 sisters and their parents explore the extensive Degas collection at the Norton Simon Museum  in Pasadena. Moving through several galleries, the girls took
In second position before Degas
turns, pausing at every painting or statue. Each one spent time looking the dancer and then carefully assumed the same ballet pose as her sister and parents looked on. The girls moved to the next painting. 

These are only my examples and no doubt many others could add theirs. Some may stand out as exceptions; clearly a 12-year old blogger with a book contract is unusual. Even as a small sample, however, they show children as enthusiastic museum goers, engaged with art, collections, and people in museums. Their visits are sources of durable experiences with life-long significance. This challenges several notions about children in museums: museums can’t reach children; children aren’t ready for “real” museums until they are older; and children only like some museums–natural history and not art.

Children Ready for Museums
Children are constantly making connections between what they see and hear and the experiences they have accumulated in even the first few years of life. Evidence of children’s interest in museums and varied expressions of their interest is apparent in the examples above. In museums children interact with people; they ask information-seeking questions about novel objects and their functions; they borrow language from others; they make meaning they carry forward to new experiences. With rich environments, great volumes of space, interesting finishes and surfaces, and real objects at actual size (very big, very small and in between), museums invite children to notice, explore, ask questions, think, and follow their interests.

Museums are simply great places for children to learn how to learn and enjoy learning. Programs, anecdotes, and studies illustrate how children–from babies to school-aged children, in museums of every type–are open to and benefit from museum experiences.

Young children’s capacity to enjoy and learn from museums is foundational for the Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center (SEEC). For 24 years, SEEC has offered museum-based learning in an early childhood program for children 2 months to 6 years at three sites in Washington, DC. While it draws on The Smithsonian’s extensive collections, SEEC’s object-based approach also builds on children’s curiosity, eagerness to make connections, and willingness to go beyond what they see. Children explore objects and exhibits in art, history, and science museums. They interact with curators, scientists, artists, and cultural historians, along with museum educators to learn about the world, get ideas, and build a positive perspective of museums.

Museum fellow, Susan Erdman, writes about taking her toddler to museums now.  She recognizes the value of her son seeing real things and making meaningful connections between objects–vehicles and animals–that he has seen in books and sees at the museum or zoo. Size, color, sound, and smells contribute information and deepen his understanding about what he’s noticing, what’s going on, how things work, and what people are talking about. She knows his brain is already absorbing concepts and museums help build those concepts. The Toledo Museum of Art offers docent-lead monthly baby tours. Based on research by Dr. Kathy Danko-McGee, the Museum’s director of education, the tours for 2-to-18 month-olds focus on interesting shapes, lines and colors. Caregivers are encouraged to name and describe different characteristics in a work of art supporting connections about shape, colors, symbols, and language.

Large objects, with strong, accessible, contextual links
In one of the few studies to look at children in museums, Piscitelli and Anderson explored children’s perspectives and past experiences of museums. The study of 77 children 4-6 years old in Brisbane (AU) indicates that children have extensive experience and positive perspectives about museum settings they visited. They regard museums as places full of exciting opportunities to learn and get new ideas. Exhibits with large objects and strong, accessible, contextual links to previous experiences and knowledge stand out in children’s recollections. Their visual recall and verbal descriptions of exhibits and architectural features are remarkably accurate. 

Children bring to museums a disposition to notice, get ideas, and make connections between what they see and hear and their experiences and interests.

Museums Ready for Children
While children seem ready for museums, museums–other than children’s museums–do not necessarily seem to be ready for children. It’s not that art, history, natural history, or science museums don’t admit children. Many, if not most, do­­. Rather, many museums don’t really value children as children and museum goers. Consequently, they aren’t prepared to serve them in ways they serve adults, experts, tourists, etc.

A typical explanation for a museum deciding to serve children relates to audience development: reach more young families and grow membership. Confusing a museum's need to grow with what an audience group needs is unfortunate. Serving children means serving them well: valuing them, recognizing the significance of early experiences, and welcoming young children as additions to public spaces. Rather than adding an admission category and hosting toddler Tuesdays, a museum must be prepared to welcome children and delight them.

MOHAI (Seattle)
Museums intending to serve children well have staff interested in and prepared to interact with and engage children. From security, to guest services, to educators, developers and designers, and housekeepers, staff should be as pleased to see children, as children are to see them. Serving children well means granting them the greatest reasonable access to galleries, rooms, and exhibits while considering the needs of the objects and building, something that can require creative thinking. One historic house on a very large property didn’t allow children under 10, until it recognized that the gardens and out buildings were great places for children to explore.

Museums committed to serving children well adopt a set of practices suited to children in every museum, regardless of type: multi-sensory, hands-on learning strategies; facilitated and mediated experiences; and child-centered environments. (In fact, the UK has a manifesto for kid-friendly museums.) Supporting these practices is a child-centered pedagogy that recognizes children as competent and full of potential, as active agents in their own learning.

While museum professionals and researchers may be convinced that young children's benefit from visiting museums include learning, they actually know very little about these experiences and museums’ impact on children and their learning. Mary Ellen Munley’s 2012 literature review of research conducted in museum settings focusing on young children’s learning concludes that this research is lacking. Prepared for the Smithsonian Institution’s Early Learning Collaborative Network and SEEC, Munley’s review notes that museums do provide distinct and positive environments to foster young children’s learning; and young children are interested in artifacts and exhibitions in traditional museums where they learn disciplinary-specific information (history or biology) before being exposed to those disciplines in school settings.

Ezra and friends at the Berkeley Art Museum
For museums interested in serving children well, the limited research on children in museums, and children’s learning in museums in particular, is challenging. It is not, however, surprising. The increase in serving children in programs and initiatives in traditional museums, also highlighted in Munley’s review, is relatively recent. Equally significant, however, is how young children’s learning is viewed. Children’s learning often looks different from older children’s and adults’ learning and may miss being studied. 

Children as receptive viewers of contemporary art may not look like adults being viewers of contemporary art. Children intrigued by dinosaurs may role-play in front of the Triceratops while adults are unlikely to do so. Ideas for stories, investigating, or building come from what children see in a painting, a sculpture, a diorama, skeleton, or people in the museum. As long as learning is viewed as content, concepts, and data calibrated to the school curriculum, what children actually are learning in museums will be overlooked. In Stay Behind the Yellow Line in Curator (56/4), Clarkin-Phillips, Carr, Thomas, Waitai, and Lowe describe a study of 3 and 4-year olds’ constructing knowledge about being a museum visitor and exhibitor. The children’s activities demonstrated their ability to develop an appreciation of art and an understanding of the purposes of museums and art galleries.

There are children’s museums and then there are traditional museums that children visit . A good number of museums are somewhere in between. These are museums with a family learning focus, museums that understand that a mission of supporting life-long learning begins with babies, and museums that more-or-less ignore the distinction completely. In this group might be the:
Increasingly more museums of all types welcome children to their galleries, exhibits, programs, and events. We know, or at least believe and hope to show, that a full range of museum experiences for children are valuable: children visit museums in their communities and as they travel; they actively pursue interests; they become museum goers and engage in learning at every stage of life. Museums make children want to explore and to learn. Hopefully children are making museums want to learn about them as well.