Engaging art museums’ youngest visitors

The best museums and museum exhibits about science or technology give you the feeling that, hey, this is interesting, but maybe I could do something here, too.” ~ Paul Allen

I just visited the web site for the King Tut exhibition at the Indianapolis Children’s Museum and I feel like a kid in a candy store. Why? Because I get to see it up close and personal next month when I’m back in the good ol’ Hoosier State to visit family. This will be the first time I have been back at this particular museum since I was ten or eleven. I have an immense amount of affection for the museums my grandmother took me to when I was a kid. The Indianapolis Art Museum (IMA) remains my favorite and will always have a fond place in my heart, even more now because I absolutely idolize the staff’s ingenious use of social networking and digital media tools within the exhibitions, and of course, their recently launched ArtBabble video sharing site. I remember climbing, building, and exploring at the Muncie Children’s Museum, tumbling around jungle gyms and bringing home layers of colored sand in jars that, to my mother’s chagrin, usually ended up spilling in some remote corner of my closet or dresser drawer.

I can’t emphasize enough that my current preoccupation with and love of museums stems from these childhood visits, and back in the early-90’s there was not as strong an emphasis on educational programming for young people in museums as there is now. There certainly were no fancy programs on iPod Touches to engage my senses, which IMA is planning to make available at their upcoming exhibition, Sacred Spain. What benefited me, I’m sure, was that I possessed a natural lust for knowledge, a large amount of curiosity, and rapt attention for anything that stimulated me visually. At the most basic level, my decision to pursue a Master’s degree in arts administration and museum studies was informed by the sentimental experience of standing in front of William McGregor Paxton’s Glow of Gold, Gleam of Pearl for the first time. To this day, that painting is my favorite work of art in spite of my current overriding love for all things modern and contemporary.

As we mold our museums into community hubs of activity, finding creative ways to engage our youngest visitors is pivotal to building future support for the arts. We know this to be true, but art museums in particular are not notorious for being the most catering to children or the most welcome. I actually think some art museum security guards have a sixth sense for the young ones and make beelines for them whenever they dare to enter the galleries. I am being facetious, of course, and I applaud that more art museums are increasingly making it more of a priority to provide parents with learning kits at the beginning of their visit, setting aside space for an art and craft room, and posting online guidelines for visiting with children. Transforming our institutions into more family-friendly venues does not have to imply that we turn our gallery spaces into wannabe children’s museum or science factories. If we are to reimagine our art museums as vibrant, community-centered spaces dedicated to art and education, the static exhibition areas and exhibition catalogues of yesterday must give way to multimedia tours and interactive learning centers. Colleen Dilenschneider over at the blog, Know Your Own Bones, is a big fan of science cafes, and I believe adapting these for art museum purposes could be an inventive step toward accomplishing our goals of engaging a younger demographic in learning and caring about art.

John Falk devised the term “free choice learning,” which involves “individual learning activities that are freely engaged in, intrinsically rewarded, and not motivated by the formal requirement of educational institutions,” according to a report from The Urban Institute (PDF). In America, we love the term free choice; we like to know that what we are getting is what we ordered in the first place and is worth our time and hard-earned money. At our museums, we need to cultivate environments that  allow visitors the freedom to navigate the galleries as they wish, to use the technology they have in order to access supplementary educational materials when and how they want, and to acknowledge that visitors are not carbon copies of each other but come from unique backgrounds with unique experiences. While children are certainly not as set in their ways with as many pre-conceived beliefs and interests as adults, they are developing unique ways of learning and experiencing the world, and in my opinion deserve a free choice learning environment as much as the adult visitor.

In what ways have you seen museums, art museums especially, involve children in learning and exploring, either in conjunction with an exhibition or as permanent educational programming?

Museums, museums, museums, object-lessons rigged out to illustrate the unsound theories of archaeologists, crazy attempts to co-ordinate and get into a fixed order that which has no fixed order and will not be co-coordinated! It is sickening! Why must all experience be systematized? A museum is not a first-hand contact: it is an illustrated lecture. And what one wants is the actual vital touch.” ~ D.H. Lawrence

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One response to “Engaging art museums’ youngest visitors

  1. What a refreshing commentary from a young lady who still appreciates and connects with the roots of her early childhood. If only all of us would spend more time exploring the precious monents of our early developmental years; when so much of our destiny was formed. I congratulate you Miss MJ Writes to be able to so clearly link your museum visits at age 5 or 6 with your present journey as an Art Administration major in graduate school.

    Only by the development of the imagination and creativity of a 5 year old mind has our hi-tech civilization evolved. When we adults cease to use our child-like senses we’re in trouble. When we stop smiling, laughing, and playing we’re in trouble. When we stop sensing our creation in Awe and Wonder; and are only able to judge, criticize, and condemn, we are really in trouble.

    May the “engaging art museum” of the future be lead and guided by administrators such as yourself. Professionals who have been emersed in creativity as a child, and who have retained their ability to speak from their heart, “Look Daddy, Look Mommy.” May our children continue to open the tired old eyes of Mommy and Daddy.

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