The Mind at the Museum: What and when children learn

I spent most of January in museums of all stripes – science, military, history, cultural, art – so it should be no surprise I feel a renewed interest in the design of museum exhibits to engage and inform visitors, particularly children.

I admit I was surprised to discover that some level of research in this field has been conducted at least since 1936, although perhaps I shouldn’t have been – but the memories of museums from my childhood are mostly dry places, with lots of artifacts behind windows to stare at and text on walls to read. This stands in stark contrast to these recent museum visits, all of which incorporated some form of active, engaged participation. The Science Museum of London’s Who Am I? exhibit was the most extreme version, with interactive touchscreen exhibits to age your face (or revert it to babyhood, with limited success) and show you inattentional blindness, the Stroop effect, and other psychological tidbits disguised as games. Even the National Army Museum featured “manipulatives”, including spinning cubes that let you mix-and-match pieces of military uniforms.

The question of what helps children learn from a museum exhibit was a focus of the Queensland University of Technology’s “Museum Collaborative”. They were fortunate to have a variety of museums (natural history, science, and two art), and partnered up several preschool and kindergarten classrooms with each museum. The classes visited their museum three times in a 10-week term, with classroom activities to prepare for and connect to the museum experience. The researchers interviewed some of these children at the end of the term, with a major question in mind: what did children remember, and what helped them learn?

I’m sure no parent of a young child will be surprised that what children remembered – either what they spontaneously talked about, or what they answered when asked directly what they remembered and what they enjoyed – was idiosyncratic, to say the least. Sometimes their memory was of an exhibit, sometimes of an activity or worksheet they did…and sometimes it was of an elevator, or of the bus ride to the museum. It’s impossible to predict what will be striking to one child on any given day, and sometimes even the best-designed museum can’t compete with the thrill of a bus driving backing into a lamppost.

There were some themes, though: When they were on topic, children typically remembered the “large-scale” exhibits, such as a life-size replica of a whale or dinosaur, and the interactive exhibits. This was something that applied even to an art museum; children visiting one of those museums were absolutely thrilled with a sculpture garden that they could climb in. Even for the more traditional style of museum, such as an art gallery that is naturally built around the display and viewing of art objects, there was a trick to children’s memories: story. Children remembered the stories told about the art, whether they were stories told by the teacher or guide, or ones they made up themselves.

So far, these findings match up with what my much-older students are reporting in their journals of our experiences. Some of the recollections are completely idiosyncratic, mentioned by only one student: A male student in the Who Am I? exhibit answering questions with a supposedly feminine turn of mind, or another student focusing on an exhibit’s failure to report American fatalities on D-Day. Where there are common memories, they too are focused on the large-scale, interactive experiences: Walking around the HMS Belfast, for example, or on the Fallen Leaves.

On the Fallen Leaves.

On the Fallen Leaves.

Unfortunately for educators, the children visiting museums tended to compartmentalize their museum experiences, instead of linking them even to the classroom experiences that shared a curriculum and were designed to connect to the museum field trips. The only exception for this seemed to be the special event of a curator coming to class to introduce some art ideas, which seemed to become enough out of the everyday class experience to transfer to the museum visit. This is good news for my local Head Start, whose annual field trip to the Farmer’s Museum is preceded by classroom visits from the museum workers, and for my recent trip, since the short lectures delivered outside museum doors might have a better chance of getting connected than a longer lesson delivered back home.

Hopefully, my students will continue to remember those large-scale, interactive experiences long after any elevator or public-transit related memories have faded.
Anderson, D., Piscitelli, B., Weier, K., Everett, M., & Tayler, C. (2002). Children’s Museum Experiences: Identifying Powerful Mediators of Learning Curator: The Museum Journal, 45 (3), 213-231 DOI: 10.1111/j.2151-6952.2002.tb00057.x


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