The Importance of Children’s Museums in the 21st Century : or “why children arent the only ones who need visual interpretation”

Before I formally begin, I probably should explain WHY I want to emphasize the significance of museum education- this isn’t necessarily a topic you consider unless exlipicitly aware of the fact that you are experiencing the educational aspect of a museum. *Ahem*

In his book “Interpreting Our Heritage” (1957), Freeman Tilden, who you could legitimately represent as the “father” of contemporary museum studies, says, “Through interpretation, understanding; through understanding, appreciation; through appreciation, protection.” The physical representation of critical museology is the presentation of art and culture as interpretations. The purpose of the essay is to explore how the abstract concepts of accessibility, heritage interpretation, and inclusivity emphasized in critical museum studies are already implicated within children’s museums- but largely ignored due to institutional prejudice towards the idea regarding the relationship between “High Class” museums and “Learning Centers”. Just as conservatory methods and curatorial design must continue to interconnect, so must the relationships between children’s museums and the museum; they too are valid visual interpretations of archival science. A museum, irregardless of its audience, uses principles of provenance that literally define restoration[1] and interpretation— the methodological movement in which the work of art is appreciated in its material form and in its historical and aesthetic duality, with a view to transmitting it into the future — which ultimately represents their approach to civic education. This observation leads one to wonder, in this growing era of institutional collaboration, to what extent do children’s and other museums partner with each other?

As the 21st century continues to challenge the identification and representation of the museum, specifically the art museum, the question of impact has changed into relationship. Instead of continuing to attempt to understand how the architectural design of a museum can structurally represent the process of thought, it would be more productive for the field of museums to begin representing contemporary social criticism and theory through practice. Museums of all types have integrated a stronger educational emphasis into their programming, and many have developed programs specifically for children and families to engage cultural narratives through a more interpretive approach than in the past.

What has been the role of children’s museums in the development of critical museum theory? In the past decade, much museum research has been dedicated to the subject of children’s museums and their relationship to the larger museum field. The origins of the children’s museum are within the museum field. The earliest established children’s museums both followed and were inspired by the original 19th century structure and orientation of existing museums. In the years, decades, and now century that followed, the concept of children’s museums and the museum field evolved parallel to each other, but distant as well.

The characteristics of influences of children’s museums are within educational programming in other museums, but to what extent do other museum institutions cite children’s museums as inspiration? How much do museum professionals allow children’s museums to cross-fertilize these institutions?

The practice and theory of heritage interpretation is immediately found in the primary characteristics of children’s museums. In a National Survey conducted by the American Association for Youth Museums, nearly 80 percent of museums agree or mention that children’s museums are characterized by their hands-on interactive approach to learning and exhibition.[2] Fifty-five percent of museums would agree that these interactive interpretations of learning and exhibition in children’s museums are one of the most significant influences of a museum institution; however, only two-thirds of museums reported that the overall extent of children’s museum influence on them was incredibly small.[3]

Aside from the hands-on characteristic, there is a severe gap in how children’s museums define their identity and how other museums perceive it. The most common role other museums see for children’s museums is the continuation of practicing a child-centric methodology that provides age-appropriate experiences for children to learn how to conduct themselves in real museums. Perhaps this social and neurological approach to children’s museums is why educational programming constitutes as virtually the only important contribution they have made to modern museum identity and innovation — acting as a priming and reward system in the civic education of culture and class.

A children’s museum could be described as providing “the principles governing the way such neural resources are formed during an individual’s lifetime and the processes by which those resources sustain that individual’s daily activities.”[4] Considering this is an institution representative of research and experimentation of museum studies, child and adolescent development, and civic education, it is surprising that children’s museums are defined as museums. Children’s museums are more likely than others to cite their learning orientation, while other museums automatically assume greater salience in the supposed target audience and lack of permanent collections in children’s museums.

Recognizing similarities in the new vision of other museums and their view of children’s museums’ historical distinguishing characteristics is an interesting observation on the hegemonic attitude that remains prevalent within the identity of art museums. The lack of a permanent collection in a children’s museum is indicative of a lack of an institutional identification label[5] one would think is encouraged by critical museology; instead, a lack of definitive social structure is represented as an unrealistic expectation for spatial parity in the museum field. Meanwhile, the two museums credited with having the first and most innovative architectural design of contemporary art space — George Pompidou and Musee D’Orsay — are praised for their museum spaces’ inclusivity and accessibility “where people could wander free of imposed itineraries”[6]

The influence of children’s museums is typically observed in three areas — exhibitions, education, and audience development. The fact that there is no permanent collection, combined with significant emphasis on interactive educational programming, and the prevailing assumption in other museum fields that children’s museums are specifically for children, will severely affect the ways in which this identity is researched and discussed by other museum professionals. One would expect that audience development, educational programming, and exhibitions in children’s museums influence zoos and science museums more than art and history museums because these institutions are defined by the presence of children and representations of fun, playful, and enthusiastic environments. Not surprisingly, the three main spheres of influence identified by other museums about children’s museums correspond to the three main distinguishing characteristics of children’s museums.

The ethnicity of art museums continues to be prejudiced against young children because their behaviour is incompatible with the security emphasized by the presence of masterpieces in an art museum. Conservation of cultural heritage is the most important factor of any museum profession, but the need to begin attending to the object’s conceptual significance rather than encouraging people to marvel at skilful construction is still a difficult task to impose on cultural institutions that rely on physical archives and conservatory technique.

The identity of children’s museums is based on intangible cultural heritage rather than the preservation of tangible cultural heritage. However, this does not mean the neurological processing of high art versus low art does not affect the general museum field’s biased interpretation of children’s museums, or prevent them from developing incredible institutional partnerships based on heritage interpretation.

[1] Cesare Brandi “Theory of Restoration”

[2] “Learning From Each Other: Children’s Museums and the Museum Field” (1999). Bridges to Understanding Children’s Museums

[3] “Children’s Museums and Research (Part 1) Hand To Hand, vol.18, №4 Winter 2004. Association of Children’s Museums

[4]John Onians “Neuromuseology” From Museum Critic to the Critical Museum

[5] J. Pedro Lorente “From White Cube To Critical Museography: The Development of Interrogative, Plural, and Subjective Museum Discourses” From the White Cube to a Critical Museography

[6] J. Pedro Lorente

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