Museums Response 2: Alexander Ch. 7 and Children’s Museums
Children’s museums are not necessarily a new idea, however in the last few decades they have increased in number exponentially. They differ from the more “mainstream” museums in that they are primarily learner-centered environments that encourage interactivity between the visitor and the exhibits. They often seek to incorporate a wide variety of learning styles and strategies into their exhibits and programs including those of Howard Gardner and multiple intelligences. Due to this, many have created extremely innovative exhibits that provide unique and deep fascination for many children.
Many of the children’s museums have focused on areas that will excite children and provide a spark that will encourage learning. Science activities and unusual interactive exhibits have revolutionized the way museums are viewed by many children today. This new type of “edutainment” for children has transformed the museum from a preservative environment to more of a true educational institution focused on the needs of its visitors. Many seem to have goals that include making a museum a friendly place in order to encourage children to come back and visit again. In this way, children’s museums may not only be educating, but also seeking to create a new generation of museum attendees.
The context of exhibits in children’s museums is necessarily adjusted towards both the physical as well as developmental level of their most abundant visitors. Within this context, there have been recent strides towards inclusion of cultural and globally diverse perspectives as well as sensitivity in exhibit design in these same areas. In addition, the increasingly pervasive role of technology in our modern lives is being reflected much more in exhibits and programs in children’s museums. Often the “hook” for a new exhibit or program may involve technology to entice young minds to come visit and have a first unique experience in this area. Similarly, recent concerns over the environment and human impacts have also affected the themes of many children’s museums and their programs. Sensitivity to global environmental issues has moved to center stage in many museum programs to encourage stewardship and careful use of our precious resources.
However, the most recent reductionist trend towards accountability and educational standards may be causing a decline in some children’s museum visitation. It may perhaps be ironic that the very group that first encourage the creation of children’s museums, the school teachers, may now be the largest group contributing to their decline. With increasing pressure on serving a set of educational standards, the teachers may have more difficulty justifying visits to children’s museums. Research may be needed to properly assess the proper role of children’s museums not only within the museum profession, but also in serving the needs of the formal educational system as well.
Support and investment in children’s museums may also be an important future challenge. Many seem to rely on a combination of both local patrons as well as larger external grants that are targeted at improving the condition or opportunities of children. Due to an increasing need to land these resources, some museums have taken to a continual “re-invention” of themselves. Through pursuit of novel and innovative educational experiences these museums are not only responding to the financial picture, but also serving the shorter attention spans of some of their most numerous clients. By wearing as many hats as possible, they may also be more successful at attracting standard-laden school groups back to their hallowed halls in greater numbers.
Children’s museums are exciting places to learn and grow, both for the visitor and the museum educators. The pervasive youthful exuberance seems to drive both the programs and the staff to pursue ever more innovative programs and exhibitions. This spirit and enthusiasm may soon be the driving force behind a shift in museum roles as these children grow up and demand more and different exhibits and programs from their museums. The museum professionals need to be prepared for the future.