Recent decades have marked a noticeable uptick in the founding of museums dedicated to children, and an even greater increase in programming offered by all museums targeting younger audiences. 1 Museums worldwide have refocused time, energy, funding and labor into child-specific programming through the creation of learning opportunities such as workshops, family days, hands-on kits, classes, guided tours for babies and toddlers, and interactive galleries specially designed with children and families in mind. Though different in form and content, the driving factor behind these museums and child-specific programming is the same: a desire to create a comfortable and inclusive space for cultural education for younger demographics.
- In the United States, the near instantaneous success of the Brooklyn Children’s Museum upon its opening in 1899 spurred the founding of the Boston Children’s Museum in 1913, and the formation of the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis in 1925. (footnote) The trend grew in momentum from then to now and spread worldwide. More recent initiatives include the founding of MACHmit – the Museum for Children in Berlin (1992), and Eureka – the National Children’s Museum in Halifax, UK (also 1992). The steadfast Victoria & Albert Museum is currently on track to open an entirely new institution, the Young V&A, in 2023.
Since their inception, these exhibition spaces and activities have offered valuable resources for parents, schools and communities. I am a strong supporter of these initiatives and my family and I have personally benefitted from such programming. But I am often left wondering about the dichotomy of child-specific exhibition spaces and events, and “everything else.” As an example: on the website for their soon-to-open museum for young children and teens, the Victoria & Albert Museum states that this museum will be, “a space to imagine, play and design. We want to unlock your creativity and connect you with inspiring objects, projects and people from across the V&A's vast collection of art, design and performance.” 2 How does this differ from the goals of the larger museum? Are the Victoria & Albert’s regular galleries not a place for the unlocking of the imagination and creativity? Although surely unintentional, the creation of specific places and programming for children perhaps sends a dual message that on the one hand, children are important and deserving of programming that caters to their needs and interests, and on the other hand, children do not belong in the traditional museum setting, and therefore need a separate space and/or time to experience culture.
I wanted to dig further into this vague discomfort, and so I posed a series of research questions to myself: Are traditional museums and cultural spaces important and suitable educational environments for younger age groups? How do young children best experience a museum? Where does the role of the museum end and the responsibility of the adult caregiver begin (and how can museums best support them)?
Are traditional museums and cultural spaces important in childhood learning and education?
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Children (CRC) states that, from birth, all children should have free and complete access to culture. In their statement, the committee specifically focused on children birth – 8 years old, and identified a need for research and suggestions for practical implementation in order to make these goals a reality. In their review of literature on children as cultural citizens in art museums, Lea Mai and Robyn Gibson argue that, “art museums, in particular, are ideal institutions for taking the lead to make the idea of child cultural citizens a reality.” 3
- Mai, L. & Gibson, R. The rights of the putti: A review of the literature on children as cultural citizens in art museums. (2011) Museum Management & Curatorship, 26(4), 355-371.
An extensive review of research literature on the subject of early learning in museums by Mary Ellen Munley for the Smithsonian Institution suggests that there is significant evidence that an introduction of art, history and science to the very youngest age groups contributes to the “development of a child’s identity and builds a foundation for continued and increasingly more complex learning in school and in everyday life.” 4 More important than fact learning, it seems that museum environments by their nature encourage learning experiences that affect the emotional, social, and cognitive development of children. According to Scott G. Paris, museums are places where all people and most notably young children “construct meaning, have genuine choices, encounter challenging tasks, take control over their own learning, collaborate with others, and feel positive about their efforts.” 5
- Mary Ellen Munley, Early Learning in Museums: A Review of Literature, 2012. Prepared by MEM & Associates for Smithsonian Institution’s Early Learning Collaborative Network and Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center (SEEC).
- Paris, Yambor & Packard, 1998, 271.
Art gives us an experience like nothing else can, a chance to connect, understand, and explore perceptions, feelings, and innovative thoughts…Bringing children to the museum reveals children and adults as being equally active in learning, putting them on equal standing as they create a shared understanding. It’s a democratic process.
—Jamee Yung, Education Coordinator, Weisman Art Museum
As is probably evident, the research supporting the positive affect of museums on young children’s learning quickly became tedious. All evidence that I came across unequivocally stated that YES, access to museums and other cultural spaces significantly affected positive outcomes in childhood learning both initially and in years to come. This is almost too obvious to state. However, there are still persistent concerns about whether or not museums are proper places for young children.
Are museums suitable environments for learning for younger age groups?
If you are a parent, or spend any significant amount time around young people, you probably don’t need a research study to tell you that children are by design competent and interested learners, capable of exploring and questioning complicated subject matter. Countless research has shown that children are deeply invested in their own learning and are capable of understanding complex content at a far earlier age than our current culture presupposes. It is the adult cultural gatekeepers – museum staff, teachers, parents – that must challenge their own beliefs and perceptions about traditional museums as places for young children. 6
- Munley, 7.
Three main inquiries have guided research into the environmental suitability of museums for young children: 1) Do traditional museums provide appropriate environments for fostering learning for very young children? 2) Do children’s interests and learning needs align with the subject matter found in traditional museums? 3) What are children’s and adults’ beliefs and perceptions of museums as places that are welcoming and can benefit early development?” 7
- Munley, 5.
Researchers Kevin Crowley and Melanie Jacobs concluded that, rather than being merely suitable, museums are particularly well positioned to serve the specific learning and developmental needs of younger age groups. They write, “The type of learning that leads to development of islands of expertise in young children has two distinctive features which are perfectly aligned with the kind of learning that takes place in museum settings. The learning is: collaborative: what is known was learned in social contexts and is co-constructed with parents; and opportunistic: learning is driven by what is noticed at any given moment by the child and adult.” 8 9
- Crowley, K. and Jacobs, M. (2011). Building islands of expertise in everyday family activity. In G. Leinhardt, K. Crowley & K. Knutson (Eds.). Learning conversations in museums. Mahwah, New Jersey: Erlbaum Associates.
- "Island of expertise” is a term coined by Crowley and Jacobs, and refers to “a topic in which children happen to become interested and in which they develop relatively deep and rich knowledge.
There is no doubt that museums are places that illicit social, emotional and cognitive development for young children as much, if not more so, than for adults. They incite questions, exploration, and interpretation. So are museums appropriate places for young audiences? The evidence once more theoretically suggests a resounding YES! However, we must take a step further and examine the practical details that take into account the specific physical and educational needs of a young audience.
How do young children learn in museums?
How does learning actually take place in a museum setting? What kind of exhibition content and exhibition design enhances learning in children, and what may detract from it? According to Munley’s literature review, research in this specific area is underdeveloped, making conclusive statements difficult. However from the studies that do exist, patterns have emerged that suggest how young children best engage with museum environments:
“Young children delight in being in the presence of “the real thing;” they are especially drawn to artifacts and specimens that are familiar to them from experiences at home, in their neighborhoods and in school. Young children make personal connections to what they see in the museum, and they respond especially well when stories and the use of their imaginations are part of the experience. Children value being part of authentic dialogues about what they are experiencing and what it means to them, and they appreciate humor. 10 Let’s take a closer look at each of these aspects that have been pointed out as enhancing learning:
- Munley, 8.
1. The real thing
Traditional museums stand out among other cultural spaces and educational facilities in that they present real, and often outstanding examples, of “real things.” Children are able to experience real paintings, sculptures, performances, installations, historical artifacts, etc. rather than a reproduction. Being allowed access to the “real thing”, whatever it might be, has been proven to make a lasting impression on young minds. This kind of direct “object encounter” provides the grounds for investigating, communicating, representing, and recalling – all different processes through which children learn, and when combined, can strengthen that learning. 11
- Munley, 8.
In the studies that do exist, researches noted that young children often commented about how special it was to see the “real thing.” When asked what they like best, children and young students often talked about opportunities in the museum when they were allowed to get close and at times physically interact with artworks, artifacts, and installations. The museum experience is even more memorable when an exhibition allowed for multi-sensory stimulation. 12 That said, some evidence suggests that recognizable exhibition content and engaging dialogue have an even greater impact than multi-sensory or hands-on exhibition design, as will be discussed in greater detail below. 13
- Dockett, Main & Kelly, 2011; Graham, 2008; McRainey & Russick, 2010.
- Piscitelli & Anderson, 2002.
This one is pretty straightforward – children most often remembered things that they found funny or out of place. There are many examples, but one of the best was of a young school class that visited a natural history museum and saw a dinosaur skeleton wearing a pearl necklace (as a promotion for an upcoming exhibition on pearls and gemstones). The children discussed this detail for weeks afterwards. 14
- Anderson, Piscitelli, Weier, Everett & Taylor, 2002.
3. Engage imagination and story
Again, any parent, teacher, or other caretaker of young children can recognize how much children enjoy storytelling – whether from a storyteller, a book, a television show, or an audio book. The experience of hearing stories is an enjoyable experience, and drives home educational content far better than a recitation of facts. “When stories are used in museum settings, or when content is presented by a facilitator-led program, they are most effective for young children." 15 Perhaps this is a good place to note that the categories outlined here are fairly arbitrary and useful for discussion purposes, but of course in real life bleed into one another. The engagement of imagination and storytelling goes hand in hand with other concepts identified in enhancing learning in museums such as familiar connotations, open-ended questions, and dialogue, which are discussed in more depth below.
- Anderson, Piscitelli, Weier, Everett & Taylor, 2002; Bedford, 2010; McRainey & Russick, 2010.
4. Familiar connotations and contexts
Studies suggest that children most engage with and absorb exhibition content that is in some way familiar to them, or with content with which they are able to make strong links to their own lives. These links may be contemporary or historic, visual or narrative. Barbara Piscitelli and David Anderson's study "Young children's Perspectives of Museum Settings and Experiences" clearly states that, “such connections with common or familiar life experiences are vital links to children’s enculturation and subsequent learning in museum environments.” 16 The importance here is not as much that the children are familiar with the museum’s setting and the content of its collections, but rather that each child has the opportunity to find something recognizable that relates to their own interests, prior knowledge and life experiences. This may suggest that a museum or exhibition with a wide variety of content, objects and media may best serve the needs of a young audience.
- Anderson, et al., 2002; Piscitelli & Anderson, 2002.
“Perhaps the most striking aspect of children’s self-report about their museum experiences was the diverse, highly individualistic, and idiosyncratic nature of each child’s recollections, interests, and learning.”
–Anderson, et al., 2002)
This could be taken too far though. Christina Macrae warns that content that includes abstract expressions should not be discounted, as these expressions are not necessarily at odds with a child’s desire to latch onto something recognizable. Abstract expressions, in terms of a young person’s learning, allow for, “firstly, a decentering of humans, which allows for non-human objects and things to be foregrounded. Secondly, a recognition of the potential of non-representational engagement with the material world.” 17
- Christina MacRae, Abigail Hackett, Rachel Holmes & Liz Jones (2018) Vibrancy, repetition and movement: posthuman theories for reconceptualising young children in museums, Children's Geographies, 16:5, 503
5. Dialogue and collaborative learning
Dialogue and collaborative learning in the forms of discussion, self-directed tours, and open-ended questions markedly enhanced learning in young children. Two separate studies observed children in art museums and recorded examples of moments of meaning-making and inquiry. Both hearing other’s views and being given the opportunity to express their own opinions gave children a sense of “the infinite nature of context” and began conversations around the existence of multiple perspectives. 18 Weier further notes that enabling young children to take charge of their own learning through self-led tours and active inquiry created a greater sense of interest and empowerment. When asked to recall memorable museum experiences, young children frequently recounted moments in which they were engaged in open-ended discussion and asked to contribute their thoughts and opinions about a work of art. 19
- Munley, 14.
- Anderson, Piscitelli, Weiner, Everett, & Taylor, 2002.
“Letting children take the lead as guides who direct their own experience in the art museum shows them they have a valuable contribution to make and allows them to learn actively from the artworks (through inquiry) rather than passively about them (through listening to ‘facts’ or fixed meanings) . . . art museum experiences support children to explore art and connect with it from their own experience and knowledge base. This kind of interaction leads to true understanding and appreciation of art.”
–Weier, 2004, 115
This concept of open and inclusive dialogue can be expanded to written exhibition materials as well. The writing style and placement of exhibition labels has been shown to largely enhance or detract from the time that families with young children spend in an exhibition. Labels that are visually accessible and written clearly with the goal of engagement have proven to be far more enticing to young visitors. According to Judy Rand, examples of labels that foster engagement include texts that “invite, personalize, focus attention, describe action, narrate, anticipate and answer questions, explain what’s going on, persuade, instruct, and encourage conversation.” 20 Rand goes on to state that exhibition texts that are written in a simple, conversational voice, texts that ask questions, and texts that are meant to be read aloud hold the attention of families longer than more obscure or academic styles of labeling.
- Rand, J. (2010). Write and design with the family in mind. In D.L. McRainey & J. Russick (Eds.), Connecting kids to history with museum exhibitions (pp. 257-284). Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.
6. Adult engagement
Adults play an undeniably important role in the development of young children. Parents, teachers, and other adult caregivers provide explanations, stories, and counter questions in response to queries from children, thus actively shaping the child’s knowledge and learning path. 21 Regardless of the type of activity they are engaged in, Munley asserts that, “the type and amount of learning that children do in museum settings are highly influenced by the interactions the children do or do not have with the adults who are with them.” 22
- Crowley & Jacobs, 2011.
- Munley, 15.
Young children do not visit museums alone. At their best, museum visits for young children are collaborative, negotiated experiences with engaged adults. Lorrie Beaumont reports on the interaction between children and their adult caregivers in the museum. She identifies six roles that adults may adopt while interacting with children in an exhibition: player; facilitator; supervisor; interpreter; student; and co-learner. Unfortunately the analysis showed that adults engaged the least in the way that most benefits learning in children, with fewer that 13% engaging with the child as an active co-learner. 23
- Nearly all adults (93%) facilitated the children’s learning, by bringing them to the museum if nothing else (I’m not sure about the other 7%...). Most also provided supervision and played with the children, (77% and 79% respectively). However, far fewer engaged with the exhibitions and with the child as active co-learners (13%). Beaumont, L. (2010). Developing the Adult Child Interaction Inventory: A methodological study. (Unpublished report of NSF project). Retrieved December 10, 2011 from http://informalscience.org/researchdocuments/0000/0643/Preschoolers_Parents_and_Educators Developing_the_Adult_Child_Interaction_Inventory.pdf.
We always encourage them to look at it as a shared intergenerational learning experience in which they grow together.
—Adera Causey, Curator of Education, Hunter Museum of American Art
Interestingly, exhibitions designed especially for children actually detracted from adult engagement. By their intention, these environments create a sense of safety, requiring less adult supervision and oversight. However a child’s presence in a regular exhibition setting, one not designed specifically for a young audience, encouraged more adult-child interaction. “In traditional museum exhibitions and galleries, and in parts of an interactive space that are perceived by the adult as more challenging, the adult initiates choices, interacts more directly with the child, and provides more guidance.” 24
- Adams, 2011; Beaumont, 2010.
Apart from exhibition design and attentiveness, there are a variety of other factors to consider within the concept of adult engagement – I refer to these factors simply as “the power dynamic.” From the first moment, it is overwhelmingly the adult that decides when to go to the museum, what to see, and how long to stay. From the start, the method of self-directed, open inquiry by which young children learn best is hampered. The open-ended nature of museum exhibitions that adults enjoy is only an option for children in so much as the adult allows it. Anderson, Piscitelli & Everett studied families and classes of young people in a museum setting, analyzed their interactions, and identified three points of conflict or competition between adults and children: content, mission, and time. For example, a child may be interested in the content of an artwork while the parent or teacher may try to focus on a specific learning goal like composition or color (Content). A child might want to stay within a favored exhibition or subject matter while an adult may want to survey the entire building (Mission). And lastly, the time that a child and adult may want to spend within a given exhibition, or the museum itself, may greatly differ (Time). The researchers determined that a path through the museum that was collaborative and preferably pre-negotiated resulted in a significantly higher quality experience for the child, and I would assume for the adult as well. 25
- Anderson, Piscitelli & Everett, 2008; Dockett, Main & Kelly, 2011.
7. Art making
Finally, studies have found that an exhibition experience combined with an opportunity for hands on reflection and creation improved learning initiatives for young children. The Studio Thinking Framework developed at Harvard studied the learning that happened in children within a studio setting. Over the 103 hours that they analyzed, they categorized 8 different categories of learning that young children engaged in within an art-making setting: 1. Learning development of craft 2. Learning to engage & persist 3. Learning to envision 4. Learning to express 5. Learning to observe 6. Learning to reflect 7. Learning to stretch & explore 8. Learning to understand the artist’s worldview. For art museums specifically, it is worth noting that providing some kind of opportunity for making in relation to the exhibitions is widely beneficial – be it a guided opportunity with an art pedagogue, or a more self-directed opportunity where art materials are provided and parents and children can reflect for themselves or with the help of creative prompts.
Roles of caregivers vs. roles of museum
With all of this research in mind, what can we determine to be the role of the adult caregiver of young children and the role of the institution in terms of how children can best experience the museum? And further, how might museums assist parents and teachers in forwarding the learning of young children? How can this analytical information be transmuted into practical implementation?
For parents and teachers, the research suggests fairly straightforward solutions. First of all, adults can support children in museums simply by providing access to the museum. Further, adults can support children by becoming aware of the methods through which young children best learn in a museum setting, and by providing them with opportunities for self-directed exploration, and engaged, collaborative interactions with adults. Adults can increase children’s learning through follow-up activities. These may be as simple as continued conversation outside of the museum doors, or more direct approaches such as reading or telling stories related to the exhibition content and initiating a related hands-on creative activity.
I imagine the practical implementation of this research into museum operations and settings to be more individual and variable. However broad suggestions include ensuring a welcoming atmosphere for families and young children – for example, child-friendly spaces for eating, family bathrooms, stroller accessibility and ample storage. In short, institutions should carefully consider the practical details that make visiting a museum with young children more enjoyable. However these logistical considerations should be a minimum. The research reviewed here calls for, firstly, an acknowledgment of the rights and full personhood of young children. Children, and their needs and perspectives, should be included within the normal museum exhibitions, not separated from them. Rather than focus on the creation of specific, child-centered exhibition spaces, museums might turn their efforts towards questioning, leading, and integrating the museum experience for a younger age group.
Secondly, it should be common exhibition-making practice to consider the developmental processes and learning needs of children, both in the curation of content and in the exhibition design. While I don’t suggest limiting curatorial practice to only that which is specific to children’s learning, it is worth questioning what within a given exhibition might be highlighted and how, for increased engagement in younger audiences. Age-appropriate content (or the provision of ample information to adults regarding content before viewing), accessible viewing options, and exhibition texts and labeling that include concise, inquisitive, and engaging wording are three suggestions among many possibilities. I would argue that most museums are fairly good about providing age-specific events and tours, but there is ample room for the improvement of museum visits for children outside of those events. Possibilities might include the creation of hands-on opportunities within the exhibition, as well as creative studio opportunities that question and reflect on the exhibition themes. Further, museums might provide pedagogical materials for children to use within the exhibitions, as well as information, follow-up questions, and suggested activities for parents and teachers to continue to explore the exhibition content once they leave the museum setting. Not only would children and families benefit from this further consideration, I suspect that museums would also benefit from analyzing their exhibitions and programming through the lens of a child’s perspective. What might they notice that they had previously overlooked? What details could be drawn out and what stories could be foregrounded?
This way of thinking lead to my last and final question: How might museums benefit from the presence of children, beyond the holy grail of increasing visitor numbers and funding? Unfortunately, this is one question that research has left unresolved. In the research that I found relating to children in the museum setting, I found no reports whatsoever on the positive benefits to the museum of engaging young visitors. Perhaps this is because these benefits are harder to quantify, analyze and summarize. However I hope that as research in this field progresses, we might begin to see suggestions of how the curiosity, creativity, and vibrancy of young visitors might positively impact museum practices, and prove that engaging children within traditional museums can prove to be a mutual beneficial experience.
Heather Jones is an American writer and curator currently based in Sweden. She is a Founding Editor of Contemporary Art Stavanger (CAS). She previously served as the Curator of Art at ValstaKonst / Sigtuna Museum & Art, Assistant Curator at Kunsthall Stavanger, and Exhibitions Coordinator at Independent Curators International, New York. She is a member of the Norsk Kuratorforening (Norwegian Association of Curators).