Wednesday, March 15, 2017

City Museums and Children

Children gathering information about the city (Photo courtesy of Humara Bachpan)

Among the top 10 global trends ranked by international experts, according to the World Economic Forum, is the growing importance of megacities. Increasingly, life is lived in the world’s urban centers where more than half the world’s population of nearly 7 billion is living. Global urban growth is expected to continue. By 2030, 60% of the world’s population is expected to live in cities. 

If city museums are about strengthening the connections between the city and its inhabitants, they should be considering children and youth in their vision for themselves and their cities. Children comprise about 50% of the population in urban areas and will soon make up 60% of the urban population growth.  More than a billion children live in cities worldwide. 

For city museums, this is enormous potential. Increased attendance and income from serving even a small percentage of this part of urban population has significant  implications for institutional health and attendance. Serving children intentionally in city museums is also strategically important. Children are a big part of the opportunities and challenges cities currently face and will deal with in the future. Children have a valued and different way of seeing their city that the city needs.

Jane Jacobs, American-Canadian urban theorist and author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities would agree. She insists that, “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” Including children and youth.
Ghent Museum Family Day (Photo courtesy of Ghent Museum)
City museums currently do serve children in a variety of ways. Many host a “kids day,” produce a magazine for children, and offer programs for students. While certainly not representing the full extent of children’s place and presence in city museums, these examples also don‘t correspond to the size or significance of children in urban settings.

To bring children into a vision for themselves and their cities, city museums need to strengthen their connection with children on the one hand and grow children’s connections to their city on the other.

Children as Learners, Explorers, and Citizens
Imagining ways to strengthen connections with children and with the city is difficult without viewing children as learners, explorers, and citizens.  

Through their senses, movement, observation, thinking, reason, and language, children notice, follow hunches, organize information, seek out others to engage. They construct and reconstruct knowledge, revise ideas, and share meanings and stories with others. Highly resourceful as learners, children observe others doing something they can’t do and imitate them; then they do it by themselves. With a natural zest for testing and trying, they are constantly making connections between what they see, hear, smell and touch and the experiences they have accumulated in even the first few years of life. Searching for the reasons for things and for meaning, children are learning everyday.

Active from their earliest days as eager explorers, children are finding their place in the world. In ever-expanding circles, they are interested in knowing where they are, where they live, where they are going, and what is beyond. Initially, children’s experiences are mediated by adults, but rapidly children direct explorations themselves. They explore around home and the neighborhood, become familiar with routes and pathways, and gradually come to know the larger, shared landscapes of their cities.

The city of the child is not history, landmarks, postcards, and transportation networks. It is not the past. Rather, the city is immediate, present; it is a compelling invitation to notice, wonder at, and explore. Children spot power lines and trash bins; they make a game of the paving stones, and shout down the storm drain to hear their voice. They watch people at work, pass houses, move among shoppers carrying packages, and hear the sounds of traffic. For the child, even a trip to the market is an encounter with the city's rich complexity.

Moving through the city, accompanying a parent on errands, going to school, visiting family, or meeting
Children as explorers (Photo of Jeanne Vergeront
friends, children and youth are developing relationships with the city. They form relationships with places–physical, social, public, civic–and with people. They become enmeshed in daily rhythms, shared events, and a city’s cultural expressions. When children grow up in and with in the city, they forge identities about belonging, sharing with others, and participating in a life embedded in the city.

We are inclined to think of children as future citizens. Children, however, are not waiting for the future. They are writing the future now in their everyday lives. More than just residents or short-term visitors, children are participating in the only real life they know. They learn the stories of their city, feel its spirit, recognize its many faces, and share its pride. Part of a changing city they know first hand through their everyday comings and goings, children are citizens now.

Building Connections to the City and to the Museum
Inspired by an image of children as critical and valuable for a city’s long-term vitality, city museums can shape a broad agenda for growing children and youth’s connections to the city. Going beyond expanding children’s programs, another kids’ day, or a pretend city exhibit, this agenda begins deep in the museum, reaches into the city, and returns to enrich the museum.

The city is a compelling invitation to children to explore and discover. With so many possibilities, a museum needs to align its interests around engaging children with its mission and strengths and choose where to focus. What, for instance, does it know about children and their city? How might it deepen its knowledge? What larger issues around safety, well-being, or welcoming immigrants is the city addressing that the museum could also explore? Readings such as those listed below and city plans for children and youth offer valuable information about city children.

Questions frame a museum’s interests and guide its inquiry. A museum may want to know more about what children think a city is, where it starts and ends; how they experience the city; or how they view nature and the city. Along with reading and discussing, museum staff also need time for observing children out-and-about in the city, interviewing them, and listening to their insights to appreciate their ideas and questions.

Ideas, places, and partners for projects and explorations are likely to emerge from this exploratory research and from children themselves. When invited to think about what is fascinating about their city and what they want to show others, children have answers and ideas. Fresh perspectives on a seemingly familiar places and new lines of inquiry emerge. Giving children tools such as maps, sketchbooks, pencils, binoculars, old photos, and cameras assists and extends their explorations of a place, an interest, or a route. In growing their knowledge of the city and its places, they are documenting discoveries, formulating questions, inventing ideas, and gathering information valuable to city planners Where does this stream come from? What was here when this tree started? How far do these tracks go? What is on the other side of the bridge? Discoveries about how parts of the city connect, new routes, and how to get their bearings as they cross the city on a bus or tram spark museum projects, exhibits, guides, programs, tours, and expo events.

Children Seeing the City
In the Municipal Infant-Toddler Centers and Preschools of the city of Reggio Emilia (IT), educators invited children three to six years to be interpreters and guides of their city. In this project, Reggio Tutta: A Guide to the City by the Children, children were asked first to think about their image of cities in general. As they then thought about their role as guides for Reggio, in particular, their perspective shifted. Using words, making maps, creating symbols, postcards, a rich, layered portrait of Reggio emerged: a city with boundaries, relationships among parts, distances, and stories. Overall the children depicted a city that is positive, livable, and welcoming.

A large project like Reggio Tutta can inspire smaller projects in various formats for a city museum to suit its size, readiness, and partners. A project, Our City at Play, might focus on places to play and what makes a good place to play. Children could interview parents and grandparents about their play memories from childhood; they could draw or construct models of playscapes for park planning. The exhibit could be laid out around the city on an audio trail or bike tour with stops at related sites. Drawings, words, models, and maps about play could likewise be installed at city hall bringing visibility to children’s insights and ideas about a playable city.

Children’s investigations of fascinating places in the city can be the starting point for designing urban adventures for themselves and others using games, scavenger hunts, and maps.  Geotagged objects or intriguing places from the city’s past could be incorporated into an augmented reality app like one created to enliven places in historic Ribe (DK).

Inviting children to participate in the life of the museum engages them as learners and citizens. Museu de les Ciències Princep Felipe (Valencia, ES), one of several science centers that has set up a children’s board of 10 and 11 year olds, it offers an opportunity for participation in museum governance.  While not city museums, the work of these museums suggests other ways children build connections with the city through authentic participation. Here, children meet and work with children from across the city. Their ideas for activities and programs are vetted by the museums’ internal processes.

City museums often create spaces for young children as the Helsinki Museum’s Children’s Town, Chicago History Museum's Sensing Chicago and other museums have done. Planning for a museum expansion or
Children's Peace City (Photo courtesy of Cavan County Museum, IE)
renovation can also engage children in the thinking of the next phase in the life of an important city landmark. Like their adult counterparts, children’s voices can be added to ideas about building design, amenities, and exhibits.
At many points in a museum’s life, children might create a guide for the museum–or its neighborhood.   

Museum collections also offer opportunities for engaging children in making connections between the city and the museum.  A museum might frame a project around children’s interest in objects in its collection that connect with a current city issue or civic campaign. Working with a curator, children might explore public transportation memorabilia, workers’ tools, or old signs. Looking over the objects children consider who used them, equivalents today, possible future versions, and what they would put on a label about the objects.

Becoming Part of the City
Cities are constantly changing and adapting. Children are part of this process and can help make cities better. When museums involve children now on different topics, they are also engaging them in thinking about what those changes might be. What might a possible future for their city look like? What would make the city better for children and youth? What would make it friendlier to newcomers? How will the city meet challenges around water? Crowding? Transportation? Children will see a different city. Starting conversations now will inspire them to imagine a new future.

When children are engaged, when they feel heard, when they contribute to their city, they become part of the city. City museums with their partners–schools, public housing, libraries, community organizations, city departments–have a large, active, and valuable role in creating opportunities and experiences that grow children’s connections with their city. Questions, interests, and possibilities–children’s, the museum’s, and the city’s–move back and forth creating strong connections. Authentic encounters with places and people which evolve into substantive museum projects, exhibits, and programs allow children to contribute in meaningful ways to the cities they live in, are growing up in, and will lead.

A version of this post is included in the spring issue of ICOM's CAMOC Review. I encourage you to explore the other articles about city museums in the Review.

Suggested Reading
• Bernard van Leer Foundation. Early Childhood Matters
• Derr, Victoria, Chawla, L. and Van Vliet W. (2015). Children as Natural Change Agents:Child-friendly Cities as Resilient Cities 
• Growing Up in an Urbanizing World. (2002) Chawla, Louise (Ed.) UNESCO: New York
• Mara Krechevsky, Ben Mardell, and Angela N. Romans. (2014) Engaging City Hall: Children as Citizens, The New Educator, 10:1, 10-20.
• Municipality of Reggio Emilia (2000). Reggio Tutta: A Guide to the City by the Children. Reggio Emilia, Italy: Reggio Children. 


  1. Wow, great project. This is what we are trying to do in Ahmedabad, India.

  2. Avani, thank you for sharing the link to the FaceBook page for your museum work in Ahmedabad. Sharing ideas, being inspired by work from cities, museums, and schools around the world will make city museums stronger and better experiences for children.