Recently, I was reading Sarah Erdman’s post on the National Museum of American History’s O Say Can You See blog about engaging young visitors in exhibits that aren’t interactive. I found myself nodding my head frequently to her comments both as a museum educator and as a mother of a 2-year-old boy.
My husband and I frequently bring my son to the Bullock Texas State History Museum‘s exhibits. A typical visit lasts about 30 minutes and involves us following a very non-sequential line punctuated by my son saying “ooh,” pointing at an object he can identify, or (infrequently) pushing a button that makes something happen. Is he learning facts about Texas history? Nope. But is he having a good experience that makes him excited to hear us say “let’s go to the museum”? Yep. And if that isn’t the point, and the way to create a long-term museum visitor, then help me out with other ideas.
The blog made me think further too, about how we talk to family visitors about what they can do in our gallery spaces. I’ve asked our Family Programs Manager, Katie Raney, to take it from here. She writes:
Many families come to the Bullock Museum to explore our state’s stories together. Ideally, we want each of them to find a connection to Texas. Exploring a museum with an iPad in hand can lead to some awesome discoveries, but it’s not the only thing you can do in a museum gallery. We use a few different techniques to introduce families to our (mostly) non-interactive exhibits.
- Stress our dynamic nature. Artifacts and objects cycle in and out of the Bullock Museum on a regular basis as a non-collecting institution. I encourage families to choose a favorite object on their first visit, return to see it, and then pick a new favorite.
- Talk about the big things. An airplane doesn’t have to be interactive. My go-to response to families with especially small children is to seek out the areas with our largest displays. Kids are fascinated by the astronaut and the movie theater sign because those items stand out.
- Go beyond education. I want to see happy and engaged visitors — not just engaged with our museum’s content, but involved with each other. They may not remember the ins and outs of the state’s lumber industry, but these families will remember discussing different jobs together and how they feel about them.
- And of course, use interactive elements. But wait — isn’t this entire post about non-interactive museum exhibits? Sure, but a hands-on experience is one part of the visitor experience. We’ve recently introduced new exploration stations within our exhibits, facilitated by staff and volunteers, that let visitors see and touch objects from our teaching collection, like bison horns, chain mail and K-rations.
As we continue to rely on technology to rule our daily lives, we can encourage families to take a break, focus on each other and lead each other to memorable discoveries. Let’s make museums with interactive and static exhibits alike a place where groups can reconnect with their stories and, most importantly, each other.