@MarDixon Passionate about culture internationally. Run remixing events, workshops, create solutions, and an international speaker. Over sharer and Mom who loses arguments to a teen. Projects created: @CultureThemes @lovetheatreday @AskaCurator @MuseumSelfieDay @TeensInMuseums @52museums
  • What is a Children’s Museum?

    August 21st, 2012mardixonCulture, International

    What is a Children’s Museum?  Sounds like a simple question which should have an even easier answer but after a recent conversation with my husband, I’m not so sure.  He had just returned from visiting a children’s museum to see a puppet exhibition and was surprised to see a sand pit for children to play in located right next to a Victorian puppet booth making it very difficult for the exhibit to be seen, with children playing on the floor and sand everywhere.

    Was this Childhood Museum trying to be ABOUT children or FOR children?  This was the question that spurred a lively debate and one that I would like to pass on for your opinion.

    Now I know The Museum Association have their own definition of a museum:

    ‘Museums enable people to explore collections for inspiration, learning and enjoyment. They are institutions that collect, safeguard and make accessible artefacts and specimens, which they hold in trust for society.’

    And that the Association of Children’s Museum has a more defined definition:

    ‘Children’s museums are places where children learn through play and exploration in environments designed just for them.’

    However it seems we are losing, or at least blurring, lines when it comes to the definition of how children’s museums meet those definitions.  Are we in need of a clearer, more global definition that could assist both children’s museums and families to end the confusion – something that could help children’s museums with the identify crisis they could be battling?

    In this recent article, Gull Wings Children’s Museum in Oxnard seems to think building a Lego room will get children of all ages to explore the museum more also I recall an older article from the New York Times which talked about the Children’s Museum of Manhattan having an exhibition on childhood obesity made with fun activities to teach children about the issue while keeping them entertained. Within the UK, The V&A’s Childhood Museum seems to be trying to hold true to being a museum ABOUT childhood but including activities to make it FOR children.

    I guess the larger question is how can children’s museum commit to their aims for their visitors without having an a clash of these priorities, where one inhibits the other?  By rights, the museum’s mission should be about its collection and exhibits however, even writing that statement I recognize how limited (some might say boring) that is on its own.  So we bring in events and activities that are ‘Kids in Museums’ friendly and create an environment that allows children to learn about the museum’s mission using play or interaction.  And that’s great … when it is done properly and without gimmicks, potentially losing the learning aspect for anyone over 10 (remember the Museum Association’s definition ‘…for inspiration, learning and enjoyment’) Is it worth considering carefully how many activities are taking place, where they are located and are they are happening for the sake of competing with a Zoo or a theme park for the day trip rather than to fulfil a museum mission statement considerately? Are we as a children’s museum differentiating for all our visitors? Are we a children’s museum or a museum of childhood? And what’s the difference?

    There was a debate before about whether all museums should be child-friendly (most people were surprised that I said No with my work with Kids in Museums and Teens in Museums but there is a time and place for everything).  Should there now be a debate on whether all Children Museums and Childhood museums should put child ‘entertainment’ so high up in their levels of importance that it can hamper the enjoyment of the casual visitor or those with a purpose such as research?

    What are your thoughts?


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9 responses to “What is a Children’s Museum?” RSS icon

  • I think the difference between a Museum of Childhood and a Children’s Museum is clear. But there are plenty so called Children’s Museums out there that have few or no collections, and seem more like an indoor playpark, in which case the term ‘museum’ is misleading in my mind. I’d expect more activities/ events and child-focused interpretation in a Children’s Museum than in a “normal” yet child-friendly museum, but when it’s only activities and nothing else, then it’s not a museum any more (at least not to me).

  • I disagree – I don’t think the different is clear between Childhood museum and a children’s museum. I think they start off different but operationally the lines soon blur. But yes, the term ‘museum’ is misleading for some (and I have to stress NOT ALL) children’s museum.

  • Having won the 2012 Family Friendly Museum award (how great is that?!)here at Haslemere Educational Museum we were under quite a bit of pressure to go all out for children and although even in 1888 when we were founded children were fundamental(hence the Educational part of our name)there is SO much more to us. We are here for EVERYONE. Although it is difficult to come up with a snappy description we did come up with the following:
    We believe that through the Museum and its objects we can inspire people of all ages to learn about the world around them.

    Through the wonder of our collections we aim to inspire our visitors, whatever their age, to find out more about the world and are here to help facilitate their quest for knowledge and life long learning

    Objects spark curiosity in us all and the Museum aims to inspire this curiosity and facilitate the life long learning this leads to

    Museums need to appeal to parents as well as children as its the adults that bring them!

  • RT @VDurrer: @MarDixon this is lovely http://www.cmany.org/ but i think a children’s art museum should be all art museums

  • RT @e_chaplin: @MarDixon places where adults should exercise caution… in Boston I got stuck in the climbing frame trying to impress my nieces!

  • RT @Tiggerlet: @MarDixon somewhere to send children so adults can engage with culture in peace?

  • As the V&A’s museum to which you refer is the Museum of Childhood, isn’t the clue in it’s name? It says itself that it holds the nations collection of childhood related objects. So not really a children’s museum.

  • The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis is the largest children’s museum in the world and has over 120,000 objects in its collection, including American, World Cultures, and Natural Science. It’s mission is centered on providing extraordinary learning experiences for children *and their families.” The museum is certainly for children, but it’s more so for families. Inter-generational learning is key, and all of our exhibits and interactives encourage families to learn together. We have a portion of the collection that is hands-on, and other things that clearly cannot be hands-on, but which are on display as is appropriate for the exhibit and topic. The balance between objects and interactives in the museum really is well done; I’m constantly impressed by our exhibit developers’ ability to make it all work. But I think one of our most amazing things are our working Paleo Lab and Wet Lab. Families can touch the dinosaur bones that we find on our digs and there are programs where they can help back in the lab, too.

    The closest they get to being “about children” instead of “for children” is in our Power of Children exhibit that highlights Anne Frank, Ruby Bridges, and Ryan White. There again are interactives, interpreters, and engaging displays that make it all accessible to children, but it’s *also* actually about children. An interesting case study, to be sure.

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