From Theory to Reality

My life as a museum evaluator preceded my life as a parent, and over the past 15 plus years, I have learned a great deal about child development, family learning, and parent-child interactions in informal learning settings.  I know what I know from academia (Piaget and Vygotsky), from classic studies on family learning, and from hours and hours spent pouring over data collected from observing and interviewing parents and children in all kinds of museums.  I have even written an article about parent-child interactions, published in Museums and Social Issues, based on research we did at the Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia.  I know that many museum professionals would describe ideal parent-child interaction as parents guiding and scaffolding their child through a museum experience that is primarily child-directed.  The image of a parent crouched down at a child’s level, together actively engaged in observing, asking questions, and speculating on the meaning of a particular experience or object comes to mind.  So, as you can imagine I entered motherhood with all kind of fantasies about what it would be like to take my own children to museums.  While pregnant I imagined me and my unborn boy/girl twins (I’ll call them F and E) at The Met looking closely at and wondering about hieroglyphs in an Egyptian tomb or at the American Museum of Natural History hypothesizing about what we could see in all those amazing dioramas.  I can happily say that almost nine years later, I have had both of those experiences with F and E, but for many years, my experience with them in museums was anything but ideal.

Instead of the idyllic scene I describe above, for many years, taking F and E to museums was actually kind of tortuous.  As the researcher pre-motherhood, I knew nothing of the reality of dirty diapers, snack containers, winter coats and hats, tantrums, or corralling two toddlers with sticky hands though a crowded gallery.  Let’s just say in those early years, had “researcher me” observed “mommy me” in a museum with F and E, “researcher me” would have been horrified.  “Researcher me” would have seen “mommy me” slumped over on a bench, covered in dried cheerios, texting, yawning, or maybe having a conversation with another mom, while F and E bounced around like pin-balls from exhibit to exhibit or laid on the floor having a melt-down because they wanted to go to the gift shop or get candy out of the vending machine. That’s not to say that it was all bad in those early years—there were moments of wonder in the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, the Newark Museum, the New York Hall of Science, and others. But those moments of wonder were outnumbered by moments of chaos.  So, when F and E were about four years old, I threw in the towel and pretty much stopped taking them to museums.

E shooting a cannon aboard the USS Constellation in BaltimoreThen, I’m not sure what happened, maybe it was because they doubled in age, but last March I took F and E on an Amtrak trip to the Mid-Atlantic States and decided to take them to a few museums.  And, to my utter amazement, we had a blast.  Over the course of three days, we went to the Constitution Center, the National Aquarium, the Sports Legends Museum, and took a self-guided tour of the USS Constellation (a naval fighting ship built at the end of the 18th Century).  I let F and E lead the way in every case and was there to gently guide them in observing and experiencing everything.  They looked at everything, asking a ton of questions and speculating on what it might have been like to sleep in the bowels of a wooden ship, to play on an NFL football team, F in the huddle at the Sports Legend Museum in Baltimoreand what the heck kind of fish is that?  Since our train trip, we have visited many other museums in the New York City area (and they visit a lot of museums on school field trips, too).  In each case, I have been amazed and so proud to realize that we are experiencing museums in exactly the way I imagined all those years ago.  It took awhile, but we finally got there (although, I have fully accepted that vending machines and gift shops still rule…).

1 Response
  1. As a parent and a museum educator, I also often find myself simultaneously participating in and observing family museum experiences. After dragging my children to museums, often against their will, we always find something that interests them, and often have great conversations about the exhibitions and objects.

    I am often surprised by what interests my children on museum visits. Last year I asked my children what was their favorite arts experience; my daughter said that her favorite was a performance of Mummenschanz because it was “weird” and “inexplicable.” My son chose the Maurizio Catalan exhibition at the Guggenheim because it was “cool.” Both chose experiences based on their novelty. Neither chose the Carsten Holler slide at the New Museum, which they loved at the time, or any other “hands-on” experience.

    Although the children of museum professionals are clearly not an acceptable sample of young visitors, I would suggest that we have a lot to learn not only from our own family experiences, but from our children themselves.

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