Children's Museums

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Children's museums are places that encourage learning, exploration, and discovery through playful interactive exhibits. There are subtle differences among all children's museums as each embodies the social and cultural values of the local context or community. Children's museums differ from other museums in a number of ways: they are specifically planned for children, place a high priority on interdisciplinary education, and use their collections as teaching tools—not as an end in themselves, but as a means to an end. In contrast to the subject-centered approach of many regular museums, children's museums have embraced a client-centered philosophy.

In the United States alone there are already more than 300 children's museums, a development that implies a greater role for this institution in the life of a community. Museums were once regarded as sanctuaries of high culture remote from the interests of children at large. Traditional museums served a select group of people through their collections, but contemporary museums are now changing as some curators and exhibition developers, trained in design or education, attempt to reach the general public, especially children. Children's museums—along with discovery, nature, and science centers—are partially responsible for these changes. Arguably, as contemporary museums take on a new look, the boundaries are minimized among children's museums, science centers, and other museums that cater to families. It is essential to point out that the emphasis in children's museums on hands-on experience is often confused with exclusively entertainment places that may have little educational value.

The first facility of its kind in the world, the Brooklyn Children's Museum was established in 1899. The most evocative feature of this building today is the metal "people tube," which is lit by neon lights and connects exhibit spaces at different levels. The Brooklyn Children's Museum was one of the first to house exhibits specifically designed for children when it began its operation in a house. These exhibits were conceived for helping the presentation of nature work in elementary schools with content based on a number of fields: botany, zoology, geology, human anatomy, history, and so forth. In 1904, Anna B. Gallop, as the curator of the museum, was instrumental in transforming the mission of the museum into an educational institution with children's needs in mind. The Brooklyn Children's Museum became synonymous with a place where learning was fun.

The Children's Museum in Boston was established in 1913 through the efforts of a group of enlightened science teachers who wanted to enrich the materials offered in a classroom. During the next few decades, the Children's Museum in Boston became a model in the country and abroad. The 1960s, however, were the turning point in the history of this museum when the young Michael Spock was appointed the director of the museum. Spock, son of the famous pediatrician Benjamin Spock, substantially redefined the children's museum. He is credited with developing interactive or participatory exhibits. Today, these hands-on exhibits are popular attractions in children's museums throughout the world.

The next historically significant museum, the Children's Museum in Detroit, began in 1917. The underlying philosophy of this museum was based on making objects available to visitors rather than keeping them in storage. Through the years, this museum has endeavored to meet the historical, artistic, scientific, and cultural needs of children.

Currently the world's largest, the Children's Museum of Indianapolis was founded in 1925 by Mary Stewart Carey, a long-time and civic-minded resident of Indianapolis. It has moved to a large new building with an area of approximately 300,000 square feet. This institution is the most successful children's museum and attracts more than a million visitors annually. It has close ties with schools and other learning organizations, and offers exciting nontraditional learning opportunities for children of all ages.

Concept of Play and Learning

The notion of child's play constitutes an indispensable core value for children's museums. Psychologists and educators have argued most cogently that children instinctively seek to play because it motivates them to learn about concepts essential to an understanding of the world around them. Child's play is metaphorically work. The emphasis on "hands-on" learning in museums becomes the catalyst for a "minds-on" approach, which views play and learning as an integrated endeavor. Music, science, art, dance, role-playing, and simply playing in special spaces with creative participatory exhibits become the means to stimulate and educate. Exhibits respect the child's spontaneous drive to learn through touch and the adult's desire to share and encourage the inquisitiveness of the young mind. Successful interactive exhibits are generally "experience-based" and embody a concept such as water, environment, or nature that manifests the qualities and functions of the concept as it relates to our lives.

The Children's Museum of Indianapolis houses many fascinating exhibits that integrate a didactic agenda with imaginative learning. For instance, a walk-through replica of an Indiana limestone cave engages the child's sense of sight, touch, smell, and sound, while the children learn about stalagmites and stalactites and experience the dampness of an actual cave. The educational intent of this exhibit is to introduce to children the processes of geological formation.

The enormously popular climbing sculpture at the Children's Museum in Boston is a maze of platforms and cutouts in midair that heightens children's awareness of their bodies in space. It is a mathematics exhibit that enables children to estimate how their bodies work through space—as they intuitively learn about scale and proportion.

The Treehouse at the Philadelphia Zoo provides a sense of enchantment through a variation of scale or size. The exhibits encourage kids to understand and experience animal habitats, which are scaled so that the child is the size of the insect that occupies the space. Children can pretend they are bees at the beehive exhibit because that bee is about the same size as the child.

Exhibits at children's museums attempt to demystify complex technological inventions or objects by giving children an idea about how they work and by making them fun and imaginative, such as a huge model of a submarine at the Children's Museum of Indianapolis.

The majority of children's museums serve kids from the ages of birth through twelve years. Many museums make special efforts to attract teenagers. Some of these institutions, such as the Children's Museum of Indianapolis, involve child volunteers, including teenagers, who are trained to participate in the teaching process.

Objectives of Children's Museums

Children's museums have common universal goals, which include emphasis on creating a child-centered environment for learning, encouragement to broaden children's horizons and to challenge themselves, and the interaction of adults and children. Although it can be argued that the phrase "children's museum" is a misnomer, these places definitely draw their roots from the museum field and house exhibits that provide learning experiences for children—very distinct from pure entertainment. Children's museums encourage imagination, critical thinking, and creativity through participatory exhibits.

Children's museums promote nontraditional learning in the spirit of exploration and discovery—even for adults. Through creative programs and engaging exhibit design, museums have the ability to create an environment conducive to intergenerational socialization. These institutions produce numerous exhibits and programs to help children relate to the world in which they live through play and hands-on experience. Bonnie Pitman-Gelles argues that understanding how things work and what they are made of helps children become more comfortable with their environment.

Outreach Programs and Partnerships

All established children's museums are organized and permanent nonprofit institutions that have elaborate out-reach programs with other institutions, including schools. Many schools in cities and towns that have children's museums arrange for their students' regular visits to these places as an integral part of their curricula.

Based on a 2002 survey of 200 members of the Association of Children's Museums (ACM), more than 31 million children and families visited children's museums in 2001, and outreach programs involved more than 6.6 million people in the same year. Increasing numbers of children's museum programs are designed to complement and extend the activities and curricula of the formal classroom. This development has significant implications for schools, early education, and other children's institutions such as child-care centers. Because children's museums stress multisensory experiences, learning is more effective.

As a dynamic institution that collaborates with other civic organizations, children's museums are likely to play a larger role in the future where children and their families have fun and learn together. It is not a coincidence that the goals of children's museums symbolize the idea of learning through play and instill a passion for lifelong learning. Theories of learning and their relationship with museums, particularly children's museums, are becoming a focus of study as people face the challenge of designing new and hybrid institutions to meet the complex demands of the twenty-first century. The concept of "Museums Uniting with Schools in Education" (MUSE) is rapidly gaining momentum as a timely innovative idea. Conceivably, the current successes of traditional school partnerships with youth and science museums will be replicated extensively in the near future. The Henry Ford Academy, a public charter high school in Dearborn, Michigan, housed in the Henry Ford Museum, is an inspiring model. Likewise, the museum-school partnership in Acton, Massachusetts, between the Discovery Museums and Uxbridge Public School, is an innovative concept in inquiry-based learning. The imaginative possibilities that children's museums offer in this regard are endless.

Many children's museums are cognizant of the fact that the paramount "hands-on" or interactive philosophy is still useful, but it is imperative to go beyond. Thus, the idea of the narrative museum is gaining currency. Lisa Roberts points out that learning is an interpretive activity, which involves a constant negotiation between the stories given by museums and those brought by visitors. These visitors include children and their families from all walks of life and various strata of society.

The Future of Children's Museums

With the current concern about the plight of children, there is growing awareness of the importance of institutions such as children's museums. These places have the potential to enhance the lives of disadvantaged children. Although many museums have genuinely intensified their efforts to reach out to less fortunate groups of our society, more needs to be done.

Janet Rice Elman argues that social problems such as poverty, crime, and violence have had a corrosive effect on families and communities, and communities have responded to these challenges by creating new institutions, which include children's museums. In this context, these places have become safe gathering spaces and function as contemporary "town squares." The impetus that results from community involvement in the creation of children's museums affords a deeper appreciation for children's issues in the contemporary world. The last two decades have witnessed an emphasis on the concept of children's recreation and leisure activity, particularly in urban areas. As our cities and suburban areas become more and more inimical to the young, children's museums make significant contributions by providing alternative activities that have cultural value for children—an aspect mostly ignored by commercial enterprises that cater to children. It would not be an exaggeration to predict that the role of children's museums in the twenty-first century will become even more consequential.

See also: Childhood and Play, Museum Movements


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Jawaid Haider

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Children's Museums

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