Virtual Issues

Where are the objects? Why is this a museum? What allows us to claim special educational status for these charming play spaces?: Turning to Curator for answers

Rebecca Shulman Herz

Rebecca Shulman Herz is Director at Peoria PlayHouse Children’s Museum and a member of Curator: The Museum Journal’s editorial board. She is also the author of the blog Museum Questions.

In 2015, I became the director of a children’s museum that was slated to open later that year. The museum is lovely – six exhibits in an open, bright, welcoming space. These exhibits, while designed specifically for our community and space, are typical of those found in children’s museums: a water table; a farm area with a market where children can pretend to buy and sell vegetables and a farmhouse kitchen in which to prepare them; a climbing area; a carpentry-based maker space; a ball area; a theater area; trains and science interactives.

This museum, the Peoria PlayHouse Children’s Museum, shares many of the characteristics of children’s museums that Marjorie Schwartzer describes in her review of Mary Maher’s Collective Vision: Starting and Sustaining a Children’s Museum (1998): interaction, entrepreneurship, a commitment to social justice, and the belief that a children’s museum can pay its own way. The PlayHouse is highly interactive, full of opportunities for hands-on experiences. It was built through the entrepreneurship of the Junior League of Peoria. The museum’s founders were committed to creating a museum that served low-income families as well as their own children; they believed (and continue to believe) in the power of a children’s museum to address inequality in early childhood education and cultural access. And they expected the museum to be sustained largely through earned income from admissions and membership.

I love this vibrant, welcoming museum space, and watching the delighted children and parents who visit. But as a museum educator who has spent two decades thinking about object-based education, I found the shift to children’s museums challenging. Where are the objects? Why is this a museum? What allows us to claim special educational status for these charming play spaces? To find answers, I turned to the literature. This virtual issue contains the results of my search: nine articles, selected from the Curator archives, on the topic of children’s museums.

Curator did not publish any articles specifically about children’s museums between 1964 and 1991. Because of this, it is easy to see the articles shared here as reflecting two eras in the history of children’s museums. The first era, which began in 1899 with the founding of the Brooklyn Children’s Museum and lasted into the 1960s, featured collections-based institutions which curated traditional, object-based exhibits and planned programs that engaged elementary and middle school aged children, often through school programs and clubs. A second era is clearly in place by the 1990s, when children’s museums have transformed into interactive play spaces appealing largely to children under the age of ten and their parents. For those interested in seeing how this transformation takes place, I highly recommend the book Boston Stories, available for free download, which illuminates how Michael Spock and his team at the Boston Children’s Museum reinvented children’s museums.

There are clearly vast differences between the children’s museums of 1960 and the children’s museums of 2017, but there are also some surprising similarities. How do these articles shed light on the continuum of children’s museums, from the collections-based children’s museum of the early 20th century to the play-based museum of the 21st century? Three trends are highlighted below, related to purpose, advocacy, and research.

Purpose

Despite a profound difference in methods, the goals for young visitors to children’s museums are strikingly similar across time. Albert Eide Parr (1960), who had just finished his tenure as Director of the American Museum of Natural History in 1960, lists four goals for children’s museums. These goals sound familiar to us in the 21st century: museums support the development of critical reasoning, tolerance, curiosity, and an interest in life-long learning. Nearly 40 years later Carol Enseki (1997), at the time Director of the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, writes about five things children’s museums achieve: Inspiring independent interest in learning, offering children an active role which leads to ownership of and comfort in the museum, redefining “expertise” to allow independent exploration, a commitment to diversity, and cultivating curiosity that leads to connectedness with the larger community. Throughout the literature we see an emphasis on developing curiosity and an interest in independent learning, and a commitment to cultivating broad-mindedness and engagement in the larger world.

It is striking that such different institutions have such similar goals. I can’t help but ask: Which type of children’s museum is more likely to achieve these goals? If you wanted to create a museum that helped children develop curiosity and an interest in independent learning, as well as broad-mindedness and engagement in the larger world, what type of institution would you invent? Would it contextualize traditional collections in exhibitions and programs aimed at elementary school children? Would it offer a play-based atmosphere with interactives built for children’s enjoyment and learning? Or would it be something else entirely?

Advocacy: “Do our communities really need more children’s museums?”

The second trend evident in these articles is that children’s museums constantly feel the need to defend and advocate for themselves. It seems that, at least since the mid-20th century, children’s museum professionals have felt that their institutions are under attack.

In the 1960s the immediate cause of this was a 1952 report published by the International Committee on Children’s Museums. This report, “Museums and Young People,” opens with a section entitled, “The Danger of Separate Children’s Museums” (Floud 1952) In this essay, the author – a British cultural worker who was at the time the Chairman of the Children’s Section of the International Council of Museums – argues that by creating separate children’s museums the field compromises a critical focus on education and non-scholarly audiences in all museums. He clearly sees children’s museums as a threat to the larger museum field, writing, “the establishment of separate Children’s Museums is a grave disservice to the cause of museum progress as a whole.” Floud also argued that children’s museums feature inferior collections, alienate older children, and prevent intergenerational visits.

Although Floud’s sentiments are not echoed by the other authors in this report, his introduction clearly sounded alarms in the children’s museum community. In 1960 Curator published two articles (the above-mentioned article by Parr and another by Helen Fisher, then Director of the Brooklyn Children’s Museum) defining and defending children’s museums. Decades later, despite the success and proliferation of children’s museums, Carol Enseki was still defending children’s museums, addressing the questions, “Do our communities really need more children’s museums? What will distinguish and sustain children’s museums in the future?” While we might categorize Enseki’s article as advocacy, rather than a defense, note that articles about art or natural history museums rarely pose or address the question of why they should exist, or what good they do for their communities.

Why do children’s museums continue to need to advocate for themselves? It may be in part because they are uncomfortably situated in the realm of museums. The editor of the Association of Youth Museums’ “Hand to Hand” newsletter, Linda Eideken, argued that the success of children’s museums lies in their emphasis on the visitor over the object, action over content (1992). As recently as 2011 the American Association of Museums (now the American Alliance of Museums) website defined museums as “making a ‘unique contribution to the public by collecting, preserving, and interpreting the things of this world” (Dillenburg, 2011). Children’s museums are emphatically not in the business of preserving objects, and by valuing action over content they repudiate a commitment to collections and interpretation, as well.

How might children’s museums move into a space that no longer required them to defend themselves? Would it help if they no longer called themselves “museums”? If they became less dependent on earned revenue, and thus had the luxury of making decisions based on impact rather than income?

Research in Children’s Museums

A third trend in the literature on children’s museums is that it contains very little research. From the beginning children’s museums have defined themselves by their audience. Yet while from its earliest days Curator aimed to publish research studies and research reviews on topics such as animal behavior (ie: Schneirla 1959), art museum purchases (ie: Lee, 1959), and even on the role and tenure of curators in a natural history museum (ie: Saunders, 1958), the first and only research on learning in children’s museums published by Curator is a 2001 study from the Please Touch Museum (Puchner, Rapoport, and Gaskins).

Puchner and colleagues (2001) find that most of the learning happening at the Please Touch Museum is simple cause and effect learning – children learn what happens when they push a button or flick a switch. They write, “The study considered this form of learning to be one of the least compelling found, as it was very simple and usually quite specific to the Please Touch Museum context.” Information learning was concentrated in exhibits that model real-world environments such as riding a city bus and shopping and preparing food in a grocery and kitchen. This learning required active adult participation. Procedural learning and conceptual cause and effect learning were rare, and found only at specific exhibits: procedural at an exhibit which involved children watching a video, selecting an option, and pressing the appropriate button; conceptual cause and effect at an exhibit in which children created marble runs. Ultimately, this study found that while “learning does occur in children’s museums…. much of the learning is simple cause and effect, and… higher-order learning is not all that common and may be concentrated in a few exhibits.”

Puchner, Rapoport, and Gaskins’ article led me to further exploration of children’s museum research. According to Curator’s publisher, this 2001 article has only been cited five times, and never in another article in Curator. One of the articles that cited Puchner, et al.’s research is a review of research which found 44 studies on children’s learning in museums from 2000-2012 – but only six of these studies took place in children’s museums, and only four of those six were empirical studies offering research-based findings (Andre, Durksen and Volman 2016). This suggests that we really have very little evidence that children’s museums are effective at reaching goals such as cultivating curiosity and fostering broad-mindedness.

Where are the objects? Why is this a museum? What allows us to claim special educational status for these charming play spaces?

The review of the literature in Curator leads to an uncomfortable answer to the question I posed at the beginning of this article: we have little evidence to claim special educational status for children’s museums, and after over 100 years of existence we still feel the need to constantly defend the existence of these museums.

It is interesting to note, however, that the research findings of Puchner and colleagues inspired or predicted the current trend in children’s museums (and elsewhere): Maker Spaces. Puchner et al found that certain exhibits, in which children solve engineering challenges, do indeed foster conceptual cause and effect learning, “whereby the behavior change involved in understanding the conceptual relationship between two things or ideas (such as might occur in a problem-solving task).” It is heartening to see children’s museums developing spaces in which we genuinely know learning happens.

To continue this trend, there are two further steps that those of us working in children’s museums need to take. First, we need to ensure that the maker spaces created as part of this growing trend are designed and facilitated in ways that encourage children to build their understanding of conceptual cause and effect. Second, we need to look at our other exhibit areas with the same critical eye: what are the learning opportunities, and are they happening? How do we build exhibit spaces that are genuinely educational, and not merely spaces for our youngest visitors to practice the skills they practice elsewhere (walking, for example)?

A recent article in Curator begins this work, problematizing play. Jessica Luke and her colleagues write that play “is not well defined nor is it well understood, which is problematic if play is what makes children’s museums uniquely valuable.” They add, “we argue that individual children’s museums should discuss how they define play and its connection to learning…. By more clearly distinguishing and/or characterizing their definitions and stances on play, children’s museums would be able to translate that meaning and value more effectively” (2017).

As a field, we must ensure that we are engaging in ongoing investigation of what learning is really happening in a children’s museum. We must look at what we do with a critical eye, conduct, support, and use meaningful research, and capture and learn from what doesn’t work, as well as what does. We must move to a place where we can articulate a clear connection between our purpose and our strategies in order to reach a space where we no longer need to defend the work we do.

References

Andre, Lucija, Tracy Durksen, and Monique L. Volman. “Museums as avenues of learning for children: a decade of research.” Learning Environments Research (2016): 1-30.

Cart, Germaine, Molly Harrison and Charles Russell, eds. Museums and Young People: Three Reports. Paris: International Council of Museums, 1952.

Dillenburg, Eugene. “What, if Anything, is a Museum?” Exhibitionist, Spring 2011: 8-13. Accessed at http://name-aam.org/uploads/downloadables/EXH.spg_11/5%20EXH_spg11_What,%20if%20Anything,%20Is%20a%20Museum__Dillenburg.pdf

Edeiken, Linda R. “Children’s museums: The serious business of wonder, play, and learning.” Curator: The Museum Journal 35, no. 1 (1992): 21-27.

Enseki, Carol. “‘Let’s Go to MY Museum’: Inspiring Confident Learners and Museum Explorers at Children’s Museums.” Curator: The Museum Journal 50, no. 1 (2007): 33-40.

Fisher, Helen V. “Children’s Museums: A Definition and a Credo.” Curator: The Museum Journal 3, no. 2 (1960): 183-192.

Floud, Peter, “Introduction” In Museums and Young People: Three Reports. Edited by Germaine Cart, Molly Harrison and Charles Russell, 1-34. Paris: International Council of Museums, 1952.

Lee, George J. “On Art Museum Purchases.” Curator: The Museum Journal 2, no. 1 (1959): 84-96.

Luke, Jessica J., Susan M. Letourneau, Nicole R. Rivera, Lisa Brahms, and Sarah May. “Play and Children’s Museums: A Path Forward or a Point of Tension?.” Curator: The Museum Journal 60, no. 1 (2017): 37-46.

Parr, Albert Eide. “Why Children’s Museums?.” Curator: The Museum Journal 3, no. 3 (1960): 217-241.

Puchner, Laurel, Robyn Rapoport, and Suzanne Gaskins. “Learning in children’s museums: is it really happening?.” Curator: The Museum Journal 44, no. 3 (2001): 237-259.

Saunders, John R. “One Hundred Curators: A Quantitative Study.” Curator: The Museum Journal 1, no. 2 (1958): 17-24.

–––– “One Hundred Curators: A Continuation.” Curator: The Museum Journal 1, no. 3 (1958): 82-89.

Schneirla, Theodore Christian. “The study of animal behavior: its history and relation to the Museum. II.” Curator: The Museum Journal 2, no. 1 (1959): 27-48.

Schwarzer, Marjorie L. “Collective Vision: Starting and Sustaining a Children’s Museum Edited by Mary Maher. Washington.” Curator: The Museum Journal 41, no. 1 (1998): 66-71.

Spock, M. (2013) Boston Stories, The children’s museum as a model for non-profit leadership. Boston: Boston Children’s Museum. http://www.bostonchildrensmuseum.org/sites/default/files/pdfs/BostonStories_WebPDF_614.2.pdf

Vexler, Jill. “Children’s Museum Exhibitions: Distilled or Watered Down?” Curator: The Museum Journal 43, no. 4 (2000): 307-312.

Wittlin, Alma S. “Junior Museums at the Crossroads: Forward to a New Era of Creativity or Backward to Obsoleteness?” Curator: The Museum Journal 6, no. 1 (1963): 58-63.