Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Learning With and From Objects: Part 1

San Miguel Toy Museum
San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
Madison Children's Museum
I recently read Object Lessons in Early Learning by Sharon Shaffer, founding director of the Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center (SEEC) in preparation for an interview for an upcoming issue of Hand to Hand, the publication of the Association of Children’s Museums.

Now a consultant for early learning in museums nationally and internationally, Shaffer draws on her experience at SEEC in Object Lessons to provide an overview of the role of object-based learning in museums, from historical, pedagogical, developmental, and interpretive perspectives. The book offers a solid run through of educational philosophies that fit with museums as informal learning settings: those of Dewey, Vygotsky, Bruner, and Piaget. In particular, Shaffer focuses on how those theories help us understand young children’s learning in general and their learning with and through objects in particular. She provides a wide range of examples of object lessons.

Reading Shaffer’s book advanced my thinking about using objects in museums with children. This area of strong and lasting interest for me was sparked when I read Simon Nicholson’s How NOT to Cheat Children, The Theory of Loose Parts in the 1970’s. In fact, part of my inspiration to start Madison Children’s Museum back then was a strong feeling about the value of objects in children’s play, exploration, and learning. I hoped that a children’s museum would provide more children with richer, more varied environments and access to a greater range of objects to use, manipulate, investigate, and transform through exploration and play.

Now, after nearly 40 years of planning, observing, reading, and writing about children using objects and materials in play, classrooms, exhibits, and environments, I am still working on understanding the role objects actually play in children’s explorations in museums, in particular. We have our beliefs and intentions, but what is actually happening?

While I’ve learned more about children using objects in museums through this on-going inquiry, I’ve also learned that the questions are not that simple. Not only is there a great range of objects in museums, but they also serve multiple purposes, in a great variety of museums that are evolving themselves. At the same time, acceptance of children in museums is also changing.

As I read Shaffer’s book, I thought, in particular, about children learning with and from objects in museums, the nature of the objects we select for them, the child’s and adult’s roles in exploring objects, and the settings in which object-based learning occurs. 

The result is a two-partexploration centering on the child’s interests related to learning with and from objects that hopefully both honors and nudges both traditional museums and children’s museums to better serve those interests.

The museum field continues to define itself in terms of objects. The American Alliance of Museums (AAM) Code of Ethics for Museums states that museums make “a unique contribution to the public by collecting, preserving, and interpreting, the things of this world.” Yet, while the field defines itself in terms of objects, discussion about objects—varying definitions of objects, the purpose of objects, and the changing role of objects in museums—continues. Adding zoos to the definition of museums as AAM has done makes sense as far as collections go; but considering animals as objects certainly expands that meaning. Furthermore, as museums approached the turn of the 21st century, objects increasingly have had to compete for museum attention with a visitor-centered approach, community engagement, and the role of experiences.

Museums, even traditional museums, are no longer limited to housing collections of objects. (Think MASS MoCA, user-generated content and objects in museums, etc.). Whether museums need objects to be museums (see Conn and Dillenberg below) and what counts as objects (explored here and hereis part of an on-going, lively discussion.

While only a small number of children’s museums have collections, I do see children’s museums as object based, a view I think is consistent with Steven Conn’s view of museums in Do Museums Need Objects? “as places of ideas—places where knowledge is given shape through the use of objects and exhibitions.”  And I would include the physical environment in this roomy definition of objects.

For me the shifting and expanding status around the museum object is a sign of a continuing, shared value around objects across museums, as well as an opening for exploring children’s learning from and with objects in both traditional museums and children’s museums.

The Same, Only Different
Swimming in objects, children’s museums find the question where are the objects in children’s museums perplexing. These museums see themselves as object centered at their core. The earliest children’s museums were collecting museums with hands-on artifacts to serve children. In the 1960’s the modern children’s museum concept emerged from Mike Spock’s experimenting with removing objects from cases for children’s hands-on exploration.
Blue Trowel by Claes Oldenburg  at Kröller
Müller Art Museum in Otterlo Netherlands

Blue garden trowel at the big box store 

In most children’s museums, objects are literally everywhere. Children move, carry, drop, hide, wear, build, and imagine with objects and materials. In fact, the centrality of objects in children’s museums is expressed in many ways, from museum names (Please Touch, Do-Seum, and Hands On) to learning approaches, hands-on, loose parts, real stuff, and materials exploration.

For children’s museums, object centered means abundant, varied objects and materials that children can explore, use, direct, put together, take apart, and incorporate into their play, problem solving, and social interactions. These settings express a great faith in the power of the object to provide children with information, knowledge, understanding, and meaning. In their shape, texture, weight, size, smell, and other properties, objects hold vital information about the world. They are opportunities for asking questions, experimenting, testing hunches, working out new meanings, and building an understanding of themselves and the physical and social environment.

Even spaces for infants and toddlers are full of objects that they can see, sense, explore. They carry balls, scoop sand, fill baskets, push chairs, turn spinners, and clutch books as they scoot, crawl, and toddle. As they repeat an action or activity, they unpack and repack their growing understandings. And they draw conclusions about their agency, how objects respond to different conditions, and what else is possible.

This is consistent with the Association of Children’s Museum’s Standards for Professional Practice definition of objects as primarily serving as tools to motivate learning, addressing the developmental needs of children, and carrying out learning objectives. 

In art, science, history, and natural history museums, object centered most often means objects that are collected, preserved, researched, exhibited, interpreted, and viewed. These objects come down to us from another time, from many cultures, from far away, and from artists and inventors. Children’s first-hand experience seeing original and rare objects sparks curiosity and creates excitement. In some settings a hands-on gallery activity in a discovery room or a family center can extend the child’s exploration beyond the visual experience, expanding knowledge of the object’s materiality, use, and connection to everyday experience.
When plastic or fiberglas objects deliver
an important experience

Hand-sewn fabric fruits and vegetables
(Children's Museum of Southern Minnesota)
When it comes to critically considering objects in children’s museums, we tend to focus on how they fail the criteria of traditional museums by insisting on viewing objects through a traditional lens of authentic, rare, representative, etc. Often, the focus is on the obvious artificiality of plastic food in a grocery store exhibit. The ubiquitous plastic food in children’s museum grocery stores is hard to defend beyond durability and ease of cleanliness. But, how discerning is such a criteria for authenticity when the object is a life-size fiberglass cow that a child can stand near (or under), and can compare the size of a leg, tail, or ear?     

Traditional museums and children’s museums also differ in being able to categorize and analyze their objects. Artwork, natural history specimens, and anthropological collections lend themselves to classification systems. Categorizing and analyzing balls, ball tracks, and Bernoulli blowers; sieves and scoops, bubble wands–not to mention bubbles—is clumsy and full of exceptions, to say the least. A taxonomic approach to organizing and describing objects such as blocks and cardboard boxes that have been recently and variously used a rocket ship, a submarine, and a giant crawl-in guitar would miss a fundamental richness. I suspect there are work-arounds that the The Strong museum may use in its collection and Toy Hall of Fame or a Reggio-inspired documentation approach that could look at children’s exploration of objects and materials. Maybe we should look into this.

Over the years, the broader museum field has made some accommodations to children’s museums’ and science centers’ looser definition of objects to include props, interactive components, and giant toys. At the same time, a growing agreement about the value of engaging children with objects in museums is occurring and is documented in Shaffer’s book. Nevertheless, both traditional museums and children’s museums could be working harder and more effectively on the promise of children learning with and from objects. In my next post, I want to explore 5 areas  
§  Great Beginnings
§  What Objects Say
§  Freedom to Explore
§  Context Matters
• Access and Availability

• Steven Conn. (2010) Do Museums Still Need Objects?  Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
• Rebecca Schulman Herz, Museum Questions.
• Rebecca Schulman Herz. “Where are the objects? Why is this a museum?” Curator. May, 2017.
• Eugene Dillenburg What, if Anything, Is a Museum?” Exhibitionist. Spring 2011.
• Hilde Hein. "The Matter of Museums" . Journal of Museum Education, Vol. 36, Number 2, Summer 2011.
• Phillip Kennicott. “Is it a museum or not? The question is worth asking.” The Washington Post. October 2018. 
• Scott G. Harris. 2002. Perspectives on Object-centered Learning in Museums. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlenbaum Associates Publishers.
• Elizabeth Wood and Kiersten F. Latham. (2016) The Object of Experience: Transforming Visitor-Object Encounters in Museums. New York: Routledge.

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