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Museums: What do Kids Want?

In my role as a museum education director,   I am often asked the question, “What do kids want to see or do in a museum?” So, I decided to check back in with a group of kids. I wondered what the appeal of a museum would be, what the students expect to do at a museum, and how the museum experience would compare to other interactive experiences such as video games and amusement parks.

By Mira Cohen

I interviewed a group of 16 boys and girls from Sheriden Street School in downtown Los Angeles. Some background research on the school revealed that the school is eligible for Title I services, has a 99.01% Hispanic student body, an Academic Performance Index of 2/10; and 91.15% of students enrolled in the Free and Reduced Price program.Eureka museum what do kids want

The group of students I interviewed prior to their field trip at the Ronald Reagan Library and Museum (where I work) was well-behaved, cooperative, and generally excited to spend the day at the museum.

Half of the students had been to the Natural History Museum with their school.  They had not remembered studying about the museum or receiving any material before visiting. When I asked what they liked about their trip to the Natural History Museum, most responded saying it was “fun” and “cool.” They saw “fossils and gems and bones.” They liked to “see the stuff, to feel it and touch it.”  One student remembered seeing a dinosaur footprint. Another said she particularly liked seeing “things that people create.” The students all responded that it would be fun to learn about how people create things or how things are created. The most enthusiastic responses came when asked if they would like to create something themselves.

I asked the students what they were expecting to do on their visit to our museum.  Responses included, “seeing real stuff, learning about Ronald Reagan, and playing games.” When asked whether they played video games, most responded that they had and named a few – rock band, guitar hero, smash brothers, and others.  When I asked the students how visiting a museum is like playing a video game, they responded by saying that you “get to find things out.”

All students questioned had been to Disneyland. They liked the games, rides, characters, taking pictures, arcade and store. One girl said you could see “real things” at Disneyland.

When I asked the students whether they’d prefer to play a video game, spend time in a classroom, or go to Disneyland; four said they’d like to play a video game and 12 said they would prefer Disneyland. (Zero chose the classroom.) Explanations for the Disneyland response included, “It is fun. I like the characters who I also see on TV. I like the big castle, fast rides, driving my own car. One student said he feels “like an adult in his own car.”

This casual verbal survey, while clearly not representing a sample of all children, confirmed many of my ideas regarding school-age children and museums:

1.    They want to see “real stuff.”  It doesn’t matter whether the stuff in question is the Mona Lisa, the Apollo spacecraft, the Bible a president used for taking the oath of office, or dinosaur bones. Something about being in the presence of a significant object is powerful.
mum and daughter in white car Eureka museum what do kids want
2.    The process behind the object is at least as intriguing and captivating as the object itself. How did an object, work of art, presidential campaign happen? Who was responsible for it? What about it worked, and what didn’t work? What was the process that was used to make it? Build it? Win it? Find it?

3.    “Let me try it.” Kids want to dig in and do it themselves. They want to know what it feels like to be the scientist, musician, political leader, archaeologist, etc. 

4.    Self-containment. Note that these kids had not come with any advance preparation. While there are many wonderful high-tech and low-tech opportunities for engaging the visitor beyond the museum walls to enrich the visitor experience and assist with brand recognition and identification, a museum with walls needs to be able to stand on its own. Not everyone who visits the museum will have the access, ability, or time to prepare ahead for their experience. They need to be able to receive the full story during their visit.

Although it didn’t emerge in my conversation with the kids, there’s one more point that I think is crucial:

5.    The well-known secret: Techniques that work for school age children often work for adults.
Who doesn’t want to push buttons, drive shiny fast cars, dig up dinosaur bones, be catapulted into space or even, be the President of the United States of America…for just a few minutes? Think about how to set things up so that adults can get involved rather than stand on the sidelines.

Mira Cohen (Mira.Cohen@nara.gov) is director of education for the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley, California. The Air Force One Discovery Center at the Reagan museum has been named to receive a Thea Award for Outstanding Educational Experience, from the Themed Entertainment Association, on March 7, 2009 .

On May 3, 2009, Mira Cohen will speak at the American Association of Museums Conference in Philadelphia , on a panel titled “The Emerging Digital Experience, ” chaired by Mark Hayward of BRC Imagination Arts . A pre-conference blog has been set up at http://emergingdigitalmuseum.blogspot.com/.

More from Mira Cohen:
Themed Attractions: Visitors are Immersed, Educated and Engaged at Air Force One Discovery Center
See also:
The Joyful Architect: Al Cross Talks about Themed Attraction Design
The Future of Themed Design? A Search for Identity
Themed Entertainment Association Announces 15th Annual Thea Awards Recipients

Images
: Kind courtesy of the The Eureka! Museum for Children, Halifax, West Yorks.

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