Wednesday, August 28, 2013

History Exhibitions for Children

Minnesota History Center's Then Now Wow
DiMenna Children's History Museum

Children have generally been underserved in history museums. Typically they do not even rise to the level of a secondary audience; only sometimes are they served in monthly programs or a hands-on history alcove. While history museums have not valued children as an audience group, children’s museums haven’t regarded history as an area for children to explore. Outside of an antique car to climb on or grandmother’s attic full of clothes for dress up, children’s museums have taken a pass on the past. Even though they haven’t focused on connecting children to the past, children’s museums have brought an understanding of development together with an experienced-based approach in museum settings to create interactive experiences and environments across a wide range of topics, including culture, as complex and abstract as history.

Change is afoot. Children are gradually being recognized as an important opportunity for history museums to broaden their public engagement using objects, stories, and environments to look back and consider change over time. With this recognition, history museums are finding ways to allocate space, involve children in planning, write labels for them, and genuinely welcome them.

First came Sensing Chicago, a children’s gallery at the Chicago History Museum that opened in 2006. Connecting Kids to History with Museum Exhibitions, a book of essays on children and history exhibitions from a variety of perspectives followed in 2010. More recently, two history exhibitions for children have debuted, one at the New-York Historical Society Museum and Library and one at Minnesota History Center in St. Paul.
  • DiMenna Children’s History Museum (DCHM) opened within the New-York Historic Society (NYHS) in November 2011. Geared to 8-14 year-olds and targeted to fourth graders, it is located on the lower level of NYHS sharing 4,000 square feet with the Barbara K. Lipman Children’s History Library. Eleven interactive pavilions invite children to, “Explore 300 years of New York and American history through the eyes of children of the past.
  • A year later, in November 2012, Minnesota History Center (MHC) (St. Paul) opened Then Now Wow (TNW). Designed for school-aged children, MHC also promotes the exhibition as, “…perfect for everyone who wants to learn more about Minnesota.” To share wow moments that shaped the State of Minnesota, the exhibition fills 14,000 square feet, the largest exhibit MHC has ever launched.
Organizational Direction
While sharing a school-age audience and holding to strong and deliberate efforts to engage children in exploring the past, each exhibition takes directional cues from its host institution. This institutional context influences each exhibition and sometimes plays out in noteworthy ways for children. (For convenience, both Then Now Wow and DiMenna Children's History Museum will be referred to as exhibitions.)

A statewide context
A city context

As a city history museum, NYHS’s exhibition uses the city as the context, following the stories of children across time periods, social issues, and key moments in the City’s and the nation’s history. As a state history museum, MHC draws on the state’s geography as a backdrop for sharing stories, memories, and a sense of place across time.

Contextual factors have implications for the exhibitions’ conceptual and physical dimensions. History unfolding across a physically large and geographically diverse state with 5 million inhabitants is a story told more expansively than covering a city (even with 8 million residents), especially when space is available. At 14,000 square feet, Minnesota’s state history exhibition is much like its wide-open spaces and sprawling suburbs. NYHS’s 4,000 square foot city history museum (including a library) is as compact and efficient as the high-density living of its surrounding city. Nevertheless, dedicating so much space to children in its recent renovation was a bold move for NYHS.

Meet the young Alexander Hamilton (DCHM)
Selection of artifacts and design closely follows available space. Then Now Wow has no trouble fitting in a boxcar and a sod house, not to mention an ore mine and tipi. Areas are large; pathways connecting them and their artifacts are broad and wide. DCHM’s 11 pavilions are an efficient design strategy for optimizing space and managing activity, groups, and circulation. Artifacts from the NYHS collections–postcards, photos, paintings, newspapers, a cross-stitch sampler, and baseball equipment, along with photographic murals–layer content with compelling artifacts and images in a relatively small space.

Focus on Children
Both exhibitions focus on a primary audience of school-aged, although they approach and work with it in different ways. DCHM is a child-centered exhibition with a clear school-age focus. It tells stories of the extraordinary lives of six New York children from the past: an Hispanic baseball player, a Dutch immigrant, an African-American student who became a doctor; Alexander Hamilton; an orphan train girl; and the young “newsies” who sold papers. This approach works to connect children today and what they do–go to school, play sports–with children from New York’s past whose enterprise and creativity affected the course of history. By identifying with and learning about children from different times in New York's and America's past, children explore time periods from 1692 to 1932, connect with key moments, and forge their own connections to the past. 

Connecting with children today and their interests (DHM)
 DCHM has a clear school group focus to its school-age focus. The design and layout seem to be structured for school groups exploring the curriculum–milestone dates or the math needed to shop in the van Varick store. The Whiz Bang Quiz Machine at the exhibition’s exit is intended to help children use what they learn; the quiz, however, makes the space feel a bit like a classroom extension. A process-oriented approach of becoming “history detectives” is also found in the pavilion and related programming.

While not explicitly child centered, TNW is a child-friendly history exhibition for the general public. Four regions that blend place and time and recognize ethnic diversity organize the exhibition. North Woods, Dakota Homelands, Grasslands to Cropland, and Cities and Suburbs are areas recognizable to most Minnesota children. Stories and memories of people and places weave together across these landscapes and Babe the Blue Ox Pavilion (theater) to engage children in exploring and understanding the past. Moving through the North Woods, for instance, children meet and join the miners who work in the ore mines. They join students who have attended the Pipe Stone Boarding School and prepare to portage around the falls at Grand Portage. In spite of being conceptually more focused on geography than on children, TNW has a well-tuned sense of what fascinates children: setting dynamite in the Iron Range mine, dressing a bison, or stealing away on a boxcar.

Engaging Experience with History Concepts
Pushing and pulling the plow (TNW)
Among the challenges of a history exhibition for children is balancing history concepts with child-directed experiences. Some of the active ways children think and learn through open-ended play and imaginative play, multi-sensory exploration, object and materials exploration do not always facilitate historical thinking. Offering a variety of experiences is a helpful strategy but not always an option, especially where space is limited. Both exhibitions include varied experiences, although TNW’s ample square footage is a factor allowing a greater range. Visitors can stroke, count, or stack bales of pelts in the Trading Post. A child can be the ox pulling the plow on a treadmill, combining the whole body and role-play. A father and child can work together and try to lift the 45-pound pack of the voyageur. 

DCHM incorporated artifacts, photographs, props, and maps into interactives, flip doors, games, video, kiosks, and scenic elements to encourage children to identify with the six historic characters. A child can look at coins from 1919 and 1823 under a magnifier, practice cross stitch, vote, and touch items like those found in a 17th century home. Video kiosks, digital media and games are well used in every area. Digital media allows a child to read and decode the first issue of the Federalist Papers, pick a location to sell newspapers on a touch screen, practice penmanship, and follow Alexander Hamilton in creating a national banking system.

Riding the orphan train (DCHM)
Exploring perspectives and engaging imaginations invite children to explore the historical narrative. The lives of six New York children from the past offer a variety of perspectives on the city's history, spanning three centuries, recognizing different ethnic backgrounds, and focusing on different boroughs. In the orphan pavilion, DCHM tells a poignant story with strong emotional connections, immersing the visiting child in the orphan’s experience. Children sit on the orphan train’s hard wooden seat next to cutouts of orphan train riders. Watching a video of the passing countryside, they listen to stories narrated in the voice of orphans and read postcards children wrote to the Children’s Aid Society.

The fur trade, as told by the beaver (TNW)

TNW encourages historical imagination by engaging perspectives and a combination of multi-sensory and full body experience. Visitors, often school groups, gather on a small (3’x5’) carpet that simulates the elevator miners packed into to descend deep into the mine shaft; they tour the ore mine with helmets outfitted with headlamps; they can become a driller or a blaster. Old and young take a seat at an old-fashioned desk in front of the class picture at the Pipestone Boarding School. Sometimes perspectives interact with each other. The result can be humorous in learning about the fur trade from the perspective of fur traders and from the fur trade’s main commodity, the beaver. One can be the farmer working the plow and then the ox pulling it.

Then-now, perspective taking that connects the past and present, plays out in both exhibitions. Explicit in its title, TNW draws the connection in a various ways: immigrants from the 1870’s and the 1990’s, a modern tipi, or “Timberjack Harvesting” now. The historical viewfinder pavilion in DCHM offers then-now views of buildings and street scenes including Broadway and 32nd Street in 1902 and today.

Design Challenge
Regardless of size, exhibitions–perhaps history exhibitions for children especially–find design a challenge. History doesn’t come in small, concrete packets. Time is fluid and stretches, as does geography. There are countless stories to tell. Brief or long, a label tells little (especially to non-readers, new readers, or slow readers) compared to visually comparing the stack of beaver, mink, or otter pelts or striding across a floor map of New York City. The more the experience releases the message, the less a label is needed.

Reading about the newsie's (DCHM)
Image, content, and text rich, DCHM integrates audio and text on labels, panels, and video kiosks throughout the 11 pavilions. Families of labels are used consistently, introducing each character, locating the character’s home on a map, explaining the how-to of interactives, etc. Text panels on each pavilion lead with engaging titles but are long, longer than the 50 words visitor research suggests. Similarly, text is plentiful and everywhere in TNW. Information kiosks are located in each region. Messages are sometimes integrated into components–stitched on dishtowels; and are digital–QR codes to identify bison parts and their uses. Text panels vary in length from short, crisp geographic descriptions to (much) longer guides. Spread across TNW’s expanse, however, the quantity of text is minimized.

Perhaps recognizing the school-age audience, both exhibitions have avoided the primary palette that is often the default in designing for children. Both exhibitions incorporate iconic elements; an icon’s familiarity can draw children’s attention and facilitate intuitive navigation of a space or topic. With its sod house, canoe, tipi, and boxcar, TNW relies on authentic and full-scale icons and generally does so in ways that spark imaginations and engage children in physical activity. In DCHM, icons are both physical, like the orphan train car, and also personalities, like Alexander Hamilton. Precious space makes this practical, but scenic elements in a limited material palette feel more theatrical than historic.

Dressing the bison in the wide open (gallery) spaces (TNW)
The pavilions, the major design elements in DCHM, are scaled to children and to the gallery volume. They supply a design solution for a space and circulation challenge, yet tend to limit the experience. On the one hand, the pavilions cue children on using each area and on the other, they encourage less open, free, child-directed exploration. The interplay of space and design play out differently for TNW where there’s a feeling of needing to fill the generous gallery space. With the exception of the North Woods and Grand Portage, the icons and artifacts feel a bit thin, as if they are stretching to connect with the Soo Line boxcar where it has been parked since MHC opened.

 In both Then Now Wow and DiMenna Children’s History Museum, children are solidly at the center of conceptual organization, experience development, and design. As a pair, they illustrate interesting variations in connecting children to the past. How will these exhibitions influence history exhibitions for children currently in the pipeline and those just now taking shape in a team’s discussions? Time will tell. And this will be a story worth following.

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