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)

Upgrades in progress

My apologies for all the broken links and images on the blog. A month ago I switched over to a new blog host, and I didn’t realize so many links would break.

I’ve decided to move this blog to the WordPress platform. Welcome, and please pardon the dust–and weird things in the sidebar–as I find a new template, update links, replace lost images, etc.

Things should finally be looking better–I hope!–in the next few days.

Please pardon our dust

I’m switching web hosts, so you may see some glitches here. Rest assured that we’ll be back at museumblogging.com within the next week or two.

Update: It appears images from older posts didn’t come along for the ride to the new host. I’ll be gradually finding and re-uploading these images. Apologies for any omissions.

Percolations: Museums and Social Networking Sites, Part IV

Note: This is part IV of a series. Read part I, part II, and part III.

Now that we’ve considered the museum presence on Facebook, MySpace, and Flickr, let’s take a quick look at a few other social networking sites.


Chances are, even if you don’t know it, your museum is probably already on the video sharing site YouTube. Go ahead–open a new window and do a search for your institution’s name. You’ll probably find some stuff you like–and some that you really don’t. And some footage inhabits that hazy middle ground: that grainy video of children playing in what seem to be dimly lit and noisy science center exhibits may encourage some families to check out the exhibits, but might discourage others.

If you museum wants to share a more polished product on YouTube, participation in this virtual space may require more time and resources–a decent video camera, video editing software, and staff time and expertise–than some of the other sites considered in this series of posts.

So what are museums and museum associations doing? MoMA is using YouTube to showacase artists’ videos, and last year asked YouTube users to winnow down the number of videos for an exhibition.
The best thing about YouTube is that it’s viral; it’s very easy to share links to YouTube videos, and just as easy to embed a YouTube video on any side that accepts HTML. Accordingly, your museum’s video can spread incredibly quickly throughout the blogosphere.

The Ontario Science Center has a channel on YouTube, as does the Tech Museum of Innovation, but the two institutions are using YouTube in very different ways to reach (I’m guessing) divergent audiences. Ontario showcases its exhibits and goings-on, while the Tech shares interviews with experts in genetics. Here are two of their videos.

From the Ontario Science Center:
From the Tech Museum:
Which do you think is more successful, and what do you think these two museums hoped to achieve by posting videos on YouTube? Go check out the rest and share your thoughts in the comments of this post (or if you have a blog, write your own post and link back to this one).The American Heritage Museum in Britain posted this kind of cheesy video to promote its exhibitions:
And the Mountain-Plains Museum Association is collecting museum YouTube videos on its MySpace page.These examples, of course, represent just a sprinkling of the museujm videos out there. Know of other museums using YouTube? Leave links to their video in the comments of this post.


Twitter seems one of those applications that you either “get” or really, really don’t. Twitter allows people to post messages of up to 144 characters on the site. Friends can “follow” each other’s messages, creating a community timeline. I find it fun to find out what my friends around the country are up to, but the whole public timeline thing is a bit overwhelming.

Nonetheless, organizations are turning to Twitter to get the word out on their activities. Take, for example, this Twitter page from the Los Angeles Fire Department:

Nina Simon has an excellent post about possible museum uses of Twitter.

While posting fairly frequent “tweets” (what Twitterers call their brief messages) may be a good way for museums to keep fans updated on museum projects and events, these tweets do disappear very quickly from the timeline; that is, they don’t stay in Twitterers’ view for very long.

What are your ideas for Twitter?


LinkedIn is a professional networking site where users invite people they know professionally to connect with them and even vouch for their work. The hope of many users is that their friends–or their friends’ friends–are connected to someone influential in their field, someone who might help them.

I’m not an active user of LinkedIn–it’s just not that popular among academics, from what I’ve seen–but it seems to me that LinkedIn would not only prove useful among museum professionals who are looking for work, seeking greater connection in the museum community, and to exchange resources, but also for museums looking for donors (of money, art, technology, or other resources), for guest speakers at events, for heads of local organizations that might bring their members to the museum, and more.

Are you using LinkedIn? If so, how?

On to part V. . .final percolations.

Museums and the Web

Although I’ve been quiet around these parts lately, I’m very much looking forward to Museums and the Web. I’ll be around on Thursday and Friday, and I’m looking forward to meeting other museum bloggers!

Using museums’ online content in student e-portfolios

[Update: A couple months ago, I began a new job as an academic technologist in higher education. While I miss teaching undergraduates, it’s nice to be free of grading and late-night class planning. Instead, every day I get to think about pedagogy and technology. I help faculty think about how technology can help them meet their teaching and learning goals. While I am learning and thinking about all kinds of technologies, I’m primarily supporting my institution’s rollout of Sakai, an open-source course and project management system packed with useful tools.

Accordingly, I’ve been thinking a lot more not just about how educators–and, by extension, educational institutions like museums–might use technology in support of learning, but also how students of all ages might create online learning portfolios packed with resources from museums and archives. By extension, anyone might use the same tools and content to create and share their own portfolios about their passions.]

I may have a different definition of student portfolios than do most people. Traditionally, student portfolios contain one or more of the following: a few examples of a student’s best work over a term, work that demonstrates a student’s improvement over a term, a student’s reflection on her improvement over the period represented by the portfolio, and examples of work that illustrate a student’s advancement toward a goal.

In an age of social networking, however, it’s important that students also demonstrate social-technological literacies, including the ability to collaborate online and to use web-based distributed knowledge to craft original work. The focus, in other words, is not on an individual student’s product, but rather on the process of successful learning.

In this vision of a portfolio, then, students would collect digital resources, communicate with others about these resources, and create an original project (an essay, video, photo essay, wiki, etc.) based on these resources. The goal is for students to demonstrate they can use the wide variety of resources and communication tools available online, and–more importantly–that they can synthesize information from these sources into a well-argued research paper or multimedia project.

In creating such a project and documenting her research process, the student is also creating a new, valuable resource on which future students and researchers might build.

So, for example, a college student might undertake research on the polio epidemic in the U.S. in the mid 20th century. The portfolio might include:

– The research paper, collection of podcasts, video, or other project created by the student.

– A digital research trail tracing the student’s research across various digital resources, including, for example, Google Scholar, Technorati, and library databases, along with a description of why the student chose to pursue the resources and paths she did.

– A collection of RSS feeds to resources she used, for example this feed on polio from Google News.

– Existing or student-created video (or, in the case of copyrighted material, links to videos) or audio interviews with people who were afflicted with polio.

– Text or audio interviews with developers or users of medical devices and drugs related to polio prevention and treatment. She might link, for example, to the “Cool Things” podcast about a polio brace at the Kansas State Historical Society.

– Photos, or links to photos, from historical societies’ and museums’ online collections.

The question for museums and archives is this: How can institutions encourage such educational use and synthesis of their resources? And how should they handle issues of copyright and the provenance of images when students want to use their resources?

I’m not sure we can trust such a task to history professors; at this year’s Educause Learning Initiative conference, I attended a session (liveblogged here) that focused in part on history faculty and visual literacy. One presenter said history faculty, while meticulous with texts, are too casual (or even ignorant) about the provenance and copyright issues surrounding images and their use of them.

As a historian who has undertaken research in museums’ physical archives, I’m very excited about the digitization of collections. But digitizing collections is, of course, just the first step. How can we encourage people–and not just scholars, but passionate, thoughtful web users, including students–to disseminate news of institutional collections and resources by creating new resources based on museum artifacts and ephemera?

Teaching students to find online resources and assemble narratives and collections is, I think, an excellent first step. Such an assignment asks them not only to develop technoliteracies, but also to engage with history in ways that make it relevant to their own lives and the lives of their peers. And the more primary resources museums and archives make available online, the greater the chance that some object or document will spark a student’s passion for a subject.