A Welcome Un-Surprise

In January, the UK’s Telegraph reported “Museums ‘should provide more hands-on experiences for children'” with the subtitle “Children are getting bored with ‘interactive’ push-button displays in museums and would rather dress up and touch exhibits, a campaign group claims.”

…And I thought ‘campaign group? Try 9/10 of the museum professionals I have worked with and/or know!’

In fact, what surprised me most about this article was not its findings, but the fact that it provoked so few expressions of vindication in the worlds of museum education where I tread.  Some of us have been saying this kind of thing for a long time.

Movie still from "Night at the Museum"

Okay...so it *might* be possible for exhibits to be too interactive. But I doubt it. Movie still, Night at the Museum, 2006.

While it’s nice to see that some of the best memory-generating (not to mention that buzzword of my museum studies’ days, ‘meaning-making’) experiences possible in museums are finally (occasionally?) getting the lauds and general public attention they deserve, I can’t help but think that it’s not exactly news.  I’ll grant you I’m in a privileged position where true interactivity is concerned: hands-on inquiry is at the heart of The Discovery Museums, where I spent the last three years, and it’s most certainly an organizing principle of PEM’s Art and Nature Center where I am now.  (After all, how many art museums do you know that let you leave your own recycled cardboard and oddity ‘trashimals’ in the same gallery space as ‘real’ professional artists’ works?)

More exciting to me than the Telegraph’s non-news is the advent of The Participatory Museum, written by Nina Simon of Museum 2.0.  She’s graciously making the content of her book entirely available for free online, as well as for paid pdf download if you like the pretty formatting.  Almost all chapters are up as of this post, with the rest due to be available by the end of March.  One of the things that I find most intriguing about the way she approaches participation is that she’s inspired by some of the very cool tech-y projects and possibilities, but is not confined by them.  Things don’t have to involve the internet–or a computer at all–to be fascinating, relevant, memorable participatory experiences.  And she goes many steps beyond the ‘touch a whalebone’ approach mentioned in the Telegraph article, into ways to promote conversation.  I’ve only just started making my way through the chapters she’s posted, but I’m looking forward to several hours’ worth of pondering!

On a related online-resource-note, I’ve collected a number of new and awesome useful links which I’ll be adding to the resources page through the rest of this week, so check back for those soon!

2 thoughts on “A Welcome Un-Surprise

  1. You are right on about this. Kids want to interact with “real” stuff. When our local science center replaced many of their exhibits with “interactive” keyboards…they discovered how hard it was to keep the technology in working order which led to even greater boredom for the children.

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    • It’s so true! The high-tech stuff is so much more fragile than an exhibit made of PVC piping, bike wheels, or even hair dryers. There’s nothing worse than a “Sorry, this exhibit will be working soon” sign (except possibly one that just says ‘Broken, Do Not Touch’)! Plus, so many kids have more than one computer in the home now, so there’s nothing ‘cool’ about keyboards with only a few buttons. The temptation to try to hack it to do something else is greater than the appeal of many of the ‘interactive’ programs which such screens display (which then contributes to the breakage issues).

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