Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Growing a Field-wide Research Agenda for Children's Museums

With support from the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS), the Association of Children’s Museum (ACM) and the University of Washington’s Museology Graduate Program (UW Museology) convened The Learning Value of Children’s Museums Research Agenda Symposium September 10-11 in Washington, DC.

Emerging areas of study
Children’s museum executive directors, trustees, and education directors; museum, university, and independent researchers and evaluators; and representatives from allied agencies and associations from the US and international organizations brought varied perspectives to what a field-wide, evidence-based research agenda might include. Working with a review of research and evaluation efforts related to learning value in children’s museums and referring to research agendas from other museum segments, practitioners, researchers, and policy-makers engaged in a collaborative, emergent process to identify and prioritize areas of study needed to articulate and demonstrate distinct learning impacts of children’s museums.

Research activity in children’s museums has grown more slowly than in other parts of the museum field. Research was not part of the originating mindset for this newer museum segment, one not based in collections or grounded in a studied discipline. Children’s museums’ grass-roots and significant growth in the last 30 years along with concentration on establishing an identity within their communities and the museum field have, perhaps, redirected some of the energy that otherwise might have advanced research on audience, learning, impact, and value as well as made room for more evaluation of exhibits and programs.

Anticipating the Symposium prompted me to reflect on changes in research and evaluation in children’s museums that I have seen in the last 3 decades.

Treasured ancient scanned photo
I can’t account for the nature or extent of research that occurred before 1980. In fact, I wasn’t really aware that what we were doing to start Madison Children’s Museum (MCM) in 1980 could possibly be considered research. From about 1980 and through the following decade, research took the form of visiting and closely observing what other children’s museums were doing in exhibits, programs, and kits. Like others starting a children’s museum in those years, MCM’s board visited the few-and-far between children’s museums. We took photos and kept notes; we also begged for photos of exhibits from people we knew had visited the few museums we were aware of. I still have treasured photos from Boston Children’s Museum, the Children’s Museum of Denver, Los Angeles Children’s Museum, and The Children’s Museum of History, Science, and Technology in Utica (NY). This collegial approach of learning from (and copying) other museums has continued and evolved. Thirty years later, children’s museums use ACM’s Benchmark Calculator and Metrics Reports with data on facilities, square footage, exhibits, programs, attendance, membership, staff training, etc. for a range of purposes, planning and improving experiences.

For the first 3 years I was at Minnesota Children’s Museum, I couldn’t imagine how we could possibly conduct research when merely planning exhibits and programs consumed us. Fortunately a research opportunity came our way. The late Herb Pick Herb, a professor at the Institute for Child Development at the University of Minnesota (U of MN) was a regular at our monthly Behavior-Environment Lunch group of architects, landscape architects, museum developers, designers, and university faculty where we shared projects and research. Herb introduced us to his colleague, the late Dr. Allen W. Burton, a professor in the School of Kinesiology. In 1990, Dr. Burton conducted research on toddler’s motor development in Habitot, the Museum’s infant-toddler environment. Other children’s museums have also served as a context for research conducted by others and have been recognized as a source of valuable information of high interest to allied fields of psychology, child development, cognitive development, etc.

In 1992, Minnesota Children’s Museum kicked off planning for construction of a new 65,000 s.f. facility by conducting 10 focus groups with educators, parents, cultural leaders, and representatives from diverse communities. In addition, each of the gallery teams was expected to field several focus groups or conversations with children. This front-end evaluation (although we didn’t call it that then) felt new at the time and offered a rich source of first-hand information from visitors, community members, and children that became touchstones for shaping the Museum's 5 galleries.

Two issues of Hand To Hand expanded our world and our thinking about learning in museums and the role of research and the more prevalent evaluation. (Thank you, editor, Mary Maher!) The Winter 1989 Hand To Hand issue focused on research and evaluation with articles on the nature of research and evaluation in children’s museums, who should do evaluation, and learning about learning, along with several case studies. The Summer 1996 issue of Hand To Hand included a research review on museum-based learning in early childhood. Looking back, I can glimpse a culture of research in children’s museums, while small and scattered, beginning to emerge with some of these efforts focusing on areas in the children’s museums.  

In 1997 I began working as an independent museum planner (and sometimes evaluator and researcher) with many museums. Working with science centers and museums across the country afforded me a broader view of research and evaluation activity at a time of growing expectations for museum research, increasing activity, and expanding capacity. This role also exposed me to emerging areas of study, networks including university partnerships, independent research and evaluation practitioners, and museum-friendly research methods. I was often able to gather and share research and evaluation activity from one museum with another.

Increasing research in museums, science centers, zoos, and aquarium, was gradually finding its way into children’s museum. A children’s museum study in 1997, Project Explore, conducted at Please Touch Museum with Harvard University’s Project Zero, researched how children 4 and 5 years old engaging with exhibits might lead to learning. An increasing awareness of the potential of research to deepen understanding of the value of museums also prompted inclusion of developing a research and evaluation agenda as an objective in Minnesota Children’s Museum’s 2000 Education Plan. In 2005 Chicago Children’s Museum developed a set of research-based Standards of Excellence in Early Learning: A Model for Chicago Children’s Museum, a synthesis of best practices that supported the Museum in reaching its goals.
Symposium participants, including Dr. Wood
Reflections on early threads of the emerging research agenda for children’s museums also played out in a reunion and conversation I had at the Symposium with Elee Wood. Now Public Scholar of Museums, Families, and Learning at The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis  and Associate Professor at IUPUI, Elee was fresh from Macalester College when she became  Program Manager at Minnesota Children's Museum. From recent college grad in 1994 to Dr. Wood today, conducting research on the learning value of children's museums, Elee's path parallels that of the children's museum field and suggests that, along with doing research, children's museums are growing researchers.

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