10 tips for visiting museums with girls

(Cross-posted at BlogHer)

I know this content of this post isn’t news for the museum professionals who read this blog, but I get some search traffic from people looking for more general information about museum-going. This post is meant for them. :)

Did you know that during conversations they have about science museum exhibits, parents are three times more likely to explain scientific concepts to boys than they are to girls?* Here are some tips on helping your daughters and other girls get the most out of museum visits. (Note: All of these tips apply to boys as well!)

1. Before going to the museum, check out the museum’s web site. Many museums offer tips to teachers (and, by extension, parents) on how best to prepare children for a visit to that specific museum. Some museums even have materials designed for teachers, including background materials as well as worksheets for kids or (better yet) pre- and post-visit activities. (See, for example, these resources from the National Museum of American History.) If you can’t find any such materials on the web site, try calling the museum’s education department to see if they have any age-appropriate materials available related to the current or permanent exhibitions. Let these materials inform your visit to the museum.

2. Familiarize yourself with the subject of the exhibitions before you go to the museum–but don’t overdo it. This might be as simple as reading a few pages on Wikipedia. If you can find children’s books or newspaper or magazine articles on the topic, share these with your children. But don’t pressure your kids to absorb too much before the visit–you don’t want to burn them out. Just pique their curiosity–and give yourself some background knowledge so that you can help your kids understand the context of the objects and activities at the museum.

3. If you’re going to a very large museum, make a preliminary visit without your kids. Large museums can be tiring, so it’s a good idea to get an idea of what’s in the exhibition halls before you show up with your daughter. Bonus: If you’re at an art museum that has an audio tour, take it! That way you can gain a better context for the art and you can use this knowledge when you visit the museum with your children.

4. Call ahead to find out when the museum is most crowded–and then avoid those hours. For many museums, the best time to visit is early or late in the day on a weekend, or after 3 p.m. on school days.

5. Talk to your kids while you’re in the exhibition. Ask them questions about the art, science phenomena, or objects on display. Ask open-ended questions that require an answer of more than a word or two. Connect what you’re seeing with your daughter’s interests or other experiences in her life. And remember: don’t shy away from scientific topics, especially if you’re a woman yourself. You want to model for your daughter the satisfaction we get from asking intelligent, interesting questions and seeking answers.

6. Talk to museum staff and volunteers on the exhibit floor. In science centers, aquaria, and zoos, there will often be education staff available to engage with your family and to answer your questions. These people–many of them volunteer docents or “explainers”–tend not only to be trained to work with children, but also have a passion for the subject.

My experience in art museums, unfortunately, is that there are fewer people available to answer questions, unless you tag along on a docent- or curator-led tour. In this case, don’t be afraid to approach the security guards and ask them questions. Chances are they’ve overheard information from the tours and can share something about the art with you. Despite their sometimes stern demeanor, many of these guards enjoy being asked about their expertise or opinions. If they can’t answer your questions, they might be able to point you to someone who can.

7. Don’t be afraid to interact with other families. Too often, museum visitors wander around in their own little family silos. Most kids like to interact with other children, so if you see an opportunity–for example, at a hands-on science center or children’s museum–to let your daughter try an activity with another child, encourage her to play.

8. Even if you’re especially well-prepared for your visit, don’t be didactic–that is, overly instructive. Pay attention to cues from your daughter to see what interests her, and follow her lead.

9. If appropriate, purchase souvenirs at the museum store–and I’m not talking about the cheap little plastic crap near the register. You don’t need to spend a fortune, but if there’s something relevant to the exhibitions that is affordable, interesting, and age appropriate, then purchase it for follow-up activities (see #10). I especially like The Savvy Source’s tip to purchase postcards of the art you have seen in a museum, and even to start a collection of such postcards for your children.

10. Plan some follow-up activities. If you’ve been to an art museum, make plenty of art materials available to your children for the days following your exhibit. We have a table set up in a corner of our kitchen where our almost three-year-old sits down a couple times a day to draw, paint, glue, cut, and hole punch his way to happiness. It’s a mess, but he gets a lot of joy from it, and learns a lot, too. (His preschool teacher is amazed at his attention span for arts and crafts. Little does she know we’ve inculcated him at home. Heh heh.) You could even place the postcards from tip #9 on the wall for inspiration.

If you’ve been to a science exhibition, go to your local library and find books of related science experiments. I recommend just about anything by Janice VanCleave–her experiments are simple to do and make concepts clear.

Parenting and education bloggers have been very generous with tips on museum-going. Here are a few:

What are your thoughts? Share your tips for (and frustrations about) visiting museums with children in the comments.

Leslie Madsen-Brooks helps university faculty improve their teaching. She blogs at The Clutter Museum, Museum Blogging, and The Multicultural Toy Box.

*Kevin Crowley, Maureen A. Callanan, Harriet R. Tenenbaum, Elizabeth Allen (2001). Parents Explain More Often to Boys than to Girls During Shared Scientific Thinking. Psychological Science 12 (3), 258–261. (Abstract)

What I learned about museum exhibits in the self-service copy shop

I spent a good chunk of this afternoon in my local FedEx-Kinko’s copy shop, copying articles and chapters for my reader for the museum history and theory course I’m teaching this fall. While most customers were in the copy shop for 10-15 minutes, I was there for nearly an hour and half, and I find few things less exciting that turning pages on books, placing the book on the glass, and pushing the “start” button.

So I put myself on autopilot and observed people in the store.

Much has been written about how in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, museums–and especially history and natural history museums–developed in step with department stores. And studies of the traffic patterns of museum visitors and department store customers could certainly be shared between the institutions to everyone’s benefit.

In a history or natural history museum, there’s usually some kind of narrative to the exhibits. Ditto (though we may not realize it) in department stores. The different mannequins and clusters of designers and clothing labels speak to particular customers, and the items on sale work in concert with one another in a silent cross-promotion. In higher-end stores like Nordstrom’s, sales associates are ready to help interpret these narratives for you–and, more importantly, to help you insert yourself into the appropriate narrative. Don’t believe me? Walk into a high-end department store and tell them you have a job interview coming up. You’ll find yourself to be the protagonist in your own story quickly enough. The sales associate who adopts you will tell you what a shirt “says” or what messages the cut of a particular suit jacket sends.

To those of us new to such service, it can feel a bit overwhelming, but if, like me, you’re clueless when it comes to fashion, chances are you’ll walk away grateful for the assistance.

Things are considerably different in the self-service section of my local Kinko’s copy shop. The store was busy this afternoon, and all of the staff were occupied assisting customers in the full-service department. Every once in a while a harried employee would find her way over to the self-service section to fix a jammed machine or to help a self-service customer who waited for assistance in the long full-service line.

But for the most part, we were fending for ourselves. It soon became obvious that I was the resident expert. (As a Ph.D. in the humanities who spent months in museum and library archives, I know my way around a photocopier.)

Among the questions I was asked by flustered customers of various ages, genders, and ethnicities:

  • Is this a copier?
  • How do I open it?
  • Why won’t it start?
  • Where do I pay?
  • What kind of card can I use to pay?
  • Where does the copy come out of the machine?
  • How do I copy onto a different kind of paper?
  • How do I align the paper on the glass?
  • Where do you work?
  • Are these your books?
  • How do I get my credit card out of the reader?

As a (reluctant) expert in photocopying, it took me about five seconds to use the touchscreen to select the appropriate paper drawer and then zoom out to the appropriate magnification to capture the entire page of each differently sized book. (Free tip: 95% or 93% reduction works really well for a two-page spread of most books, and allows for notes in the margins.)

I was shocked, therefore, to see people–even college students and recent college grads–struggling with the machines. After 20 years of using the damn things, their workings and quirks are transparent to me.

Apparently, this is not the case with most Kinko’s customers in my university town.

Stymied, people began to talk to one another, and then began pointing to me as a resource. And while personally I think it shows a major gap in customer service at Kinko’s if customers are providing assistance to one another, there’s a lesson here to be learned about patron interactions.

I’m thinking specifically about science centers. Your average science center is going to have a few exhibits on the floor that require the collaboration of two or more visitors. And chances are that same exhibit floor will be understaffed by volunteer or paid docents. Exhibit signs and labels can provide instructions on how to conduct the activity and information on phenomena being displayed.

What would happen if we removed some of these signs? Learning might suffer–but only if we limit our learning objectives to a narrow set of scientific concepts.

What if we redefine our learning objectives for any given exhibit to encompass the learning of new ways of constructing knowledge? After all, it’s debatable which is more important: that visitors learn the entire range of phenomena causing climate change or that visitors learn to feel comfortable discussing climate change with friends, family, casual acquaintances, and strangers. After all, they can always look up the facts after they leave the exhibit. But we miss an opportunity if we don’t get people talking and collaborating within the exhibit.

Of course, the best exhibits will draw from both the Nordstrom’s and the Kinko’s paradigms of customer service. We need to accommodate all learners, introverts as well as extroverts. But when you’re presenting a new(ish) subject–be it climate change or photocopiers–and your exhibit floor is understaffed, you had better be providing a climate where visitors can ask questions of one another. Otherwise you’ll end up with patrons who walk out in frustration, feeling stupid and unskilled.

What’s your approach? More importantly, what do visitors and patrons see as your approach?

FedEx Kinko’s before and after photos by Dave Boudreau, and used under a Creative Commons license.