Children’s Museums: 3 Puzzles

1. How is children’s museum different from a regular one?

a. Hands-on. Kids touch, listen, see. Explaining sometimes happens “over the top” – parent or museum volunteer, or posters. Museum folks talk about Piaget a lot: learn from environment.

b. Space not time. Schools typically have set time periods, perhaps even a bell. Museums are mostly at one’s own pace.

c. Mini-worlds to help kids grasp the Big Picture.

For example, Capital Children’s Museum’s International Hall presents a foreign country, Mexico, in eight different environments: in the city, visitors actually use the telephones, gas pumps, and (real) vehicles; in the Oaxacan kitchen, visitors actually grind chocolate and make a mixture they can drink; in the Miscellanea, they take real grocery products off shelves and weigh and measure out goods to be sold; in the Sierra log cabin, they form masa (dough made from ground corn, water, and lime) into cakes which they bake into tortillas and eat — in each instance using real Mexican utensils.

d. Stimulate memory by arousing emotions.

My favorite museum exhibit was the “mummy exhibit” of the Egyptian collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. You entered through a narrow opening made of huge blocks like those in the tombs at Luxor; on one side was a case with a withered mummy wrapped in decaying muslin. What lay beyond the mummy case I have forgotten. I approached with a mixture of fear and excitement. Could I look? Would it grab me? Was it dead? I was three or four years old and afraid of dead things. With great determination, on visit after visit, I forced myself to go through the entry and past the case. I cannot remember which day I no longer was afraid.

I recently visited the remodeled Egyptian collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The narrow entrance has been replaced with a wide passage lined with many brightly lit display cases. The mummy has been moved to another area. It is hard to imagine a child’s feeling frightened; it is hard to imagine a child’s feeling anything! The new exhibit may be better for adults, but it has been stripped of valuable context for a child, and parents now have no means to convey to a child what ancient Egyptian tombs are like. It has become a curator’s exhibit, unparalleled in the simultaneous presentation and preservation of objects, but not an educational experience for a young child.

2. What happens at the intersection of schools and museums?

Often lessons are added “over the top.” See here.

In Washington, D.C., the Phillips Collection developed Prism.K12, a nationally recognized program for arts integration, and approached Kenmore Middle School in Arlington, Virginia, about creating math lessons in conjunction with the museum’s recent exhibit on surrealist Man Ray. Phillips’ educators worked with Kenmore educators in art, science, technology, engineering and math to develop integrated, interdisciplinary lessons.

Guests at the opening stepped into the students’ shoes to experience one math and art lesson — “Increasing Exponentially.” For some, this required harking back to middle school for a reintroduction to the concept of exponent, a quantity representing the power to which a given number or expression is to be raised. In the case of this exercise, it was the number 2.

To master this concept, each guest built a tiny hanger from pipe cleaners. Groups of guests then constructed multi-tiered mobiles from the hangers, with each tier containing more hangers to reflect the exponential increase.

3. What else might flow from schools to museums? I wonder about guidance on parenting. Museum staff often notice parent-kid issues, but they typically ignore them. For example:

Yet, we observe behavior that is disturbing: a child concentrating intently and a parent dragging her off to something else. The parent is driven by a compulsion to “see everything” and is oblivious to the fact that the child is concentrating.

Another parent may be unaware of the intent of an exhibit and unable to use it to trigger a child’s interest in the many implicit lessons.

Some parents and teachers are belligerent, blaming the museum for being too crowded and allow their children to “beat up” the exhibits.

Other parents mirror the least pleasant characteristics in the society: they are hurried, harried, and lack time to savor the experience.

Saddest is watching children scolded, hit, or ridiculed in public, their dignity violated.

Typically, parents buy tickets, then enter. As a school leader, I wonder what a zippy 30-second parent orientation might do in a museum setting. Just take the behaviors you want to avoid or reward, and describe them. For example: “If your kid is enjoying an exhibit, that’s a PARENT WIN. Don’t feel compelled to move on and see everything.”