Create, Learn, Believe

Enriching Museum Experiences

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Children in Museums

A very interesting discussion has been taking place on the Museum-L listserv. Here is my take on children and museums.

> There are always going to be examples of people behaving badly in public, regardless of age. Think about scary drivers you encounter on your commute or the last time you saw an adult having a meltdown in Starbucks over her drink order.
> In looking at the bigger picture of children in museums, it is incumbent upon museums to first examine their own practices. A great many museums are quite aggressive in marketing towards school groups and families. The rack at any state highway welcome center shows scores of brochures for museums, especially historic sites, featuring smiling children engaged with some activity. It is very rare, in my experience, that museums exclude children and families from marketing outreach. When they do, they tend to attract fewer kids. Most museums see kids and their caregivers as a necessary audience segment.
> However, even though museums actively solicit child visitors, they frequently fail to engage them because they do not plan experiences that meet the cognitive and social needs of child visitors in exhibits and programs. Rather than planning for children's accessibility, they design for adults. The result is child visitors who may express boredom in misbehavior. Parents who have been led to believe that the museum experience will be good for their kids, and perhaps paid a hefty admission, may soldier on looking for the elusive engagement and benefit past the point where behavior is redeemable.
> People who visited museums as children become adult museum visitors. People who did not are unlikely to develop the habit in adulthood. It is to all our professional benefit to encourage child visitors so that we have future adult visitors. Before indicting modern parents or considering banning children from museums, museums need to first examine their approaches to accessibility. They cannot assume that a few computer interactives in a gallery or a half hour children's tour grafted onto regular programming meets children's needs. Much in the same way that applying the principles of universal design improves experiences for all people, examining and adjusting the way that content is presented will also improve adult experiences. This does not suggest "dumbing down" content at all, because children are capable of processing sophisticated information. Rather, look at how your exhibitions can become more conversational and less didactic. Look at physical layouts and consider how they can better promote discovery and inclusion. Train interpretive staff to talk with visitors rather than at them and to focus on big ideas rather than the "name the thing" tour. (This is a painting, this is a chair, this is a tool.)
> Once you have committed to accessibility for children and carried it out through design, I believe that you will find fewer misbehavior issues overall and higher general visitor satisfaction. This won't eliminate outrageous examples; after all better highway design hasn't eliminated road rage. But the more you match offerings to expectations, the better your chances for success.

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