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.

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