Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Keeping it real: observations from a kid-centered visit to the Natural History Museum

Outside with Charles Herndon' s Venus from the Ice Fields
I spent the better part of four hours today at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History with my two young daughters. After breakfast I let my not quite two year-old determine the day's adventure. Given a choice between the Zoo, the Cleveland Museum of Art, and CMNH, her answer was "dinosaurs," so off we went. As is often the case, I was struck by several things about the way my children explored, consumed, and internalized experiences, information, and exhibits during their visit.

First off, you should know that I worked at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History for over four years, so I am very familiar with the museum, its programs, and collections. Also, because the museum is our family favorite, my children have been attending regularly quite literally since they were born. This makes them something nearing age-appropriate experts on the different areas and exhibits at the museum. That said, the girls still delight in picking their journey through the galleries, encountering new finds and old favorites along the way.

Today, as usual, I let them choose our route through the museum, starting in Kahn Hall with the traveling exhibition Wild Music: Sounds and Songs of Life. This was our first visit to the temporary exhibit, so we were eager to try out the many interactive experiences offered inside. OBSERVATION #1: My kids aren't keen on headphones. I cannot be sure whether this lack of enthusiasm was due to their ages (almost 2 and almost 4), their comfort level with headsets sized for adults, or their frustration with the fact that I couldn't simultaneously hear what they were hearing and therefore couldn't share in their experience. Unlike my children, I recognize the convenience of employing headphones in a large exhibit filled with auditory experiences and the important role they play in reducing ambient noise. However, to all of you exhibit designers out there, remember that wherever you offer one set of headphones, you limit the collaborative group experience and hinder connections between visitors.

I must add that the individual headphone sets in Wild Music were offset by the number of group-friendly listening stations where sound was piped through external speakers. There was even a free-standing jam room where loud sounds could be freely explored and enjoyed by anyone willing to brave the noise.

From Wild Music we traveled downstairs to the Discovery Center where my kids always enjoy hands-on experiences related to content presented throughout the museum. The girls each have their own favorite games, activities, and stations in the "Disco Center," but I was delighted to see that they gravitated toward a few new activities first. OBSERVATION #2: My kids like to play the same games at the museum as they play at home, just in a different context. In the center of one of the child-sized tables was a clear plastic tub filled with common, everyday objects buried in "strata" made of different colored beans, grains, and ground corn cobs. The tub was the centerpiece of an activity illustrating the principles of stratigraphy, historic deposition, and archaeological discovery. Cards were stationed around the table inviting children (and adults) to conduct an "I spy" type scavenger hunt for objects buried in the tub, asking them to determine which objects were the oldest, and even encouraging them to draw conclusions from the items they observed. My kids loved this game! We regularly play "I spy" in the car, and my eldest daughter's favorite library books are from the I Spy series. Since the staff very thoughtfully used photos of the objects on the cards instead of a list of words, both of my nonreaders were able to participate equally in the hunt.

Another new activity stationed nearby the archaeology tub was a pottery reconstruction puzzle. Two foam plates were covered in some unknown durable coating (I couldn't figure out what it was, but it worked well), then painted to look like terra cotta. One plate was the sample form, and the other was broken into potsherds, which children could reassemble to reconstruct the "ancient" vessel. Both of my girls are puzzle nuts, so this activity was almost as popular with them as the pre-existing dinosaur and human body puzzles they enjoy on every visit to the Disco Center. I love puzzles too, and this simple activity was proof positive that you don't have to spend a lot of money to create a fun and valuable learning opportunity. Be creative!

When we finished playing in the Discovery Center, it was time for lunch, so we headed to The Blue Planet Cafe. OBSERVATION #3: Moms are happiest when there are healthy choices on the menu for everyone in the family. I'm pleased to report that not only was the food in the museum's cafe tasty and pretty healthy, but it was also very reasonably priced and amply portioned for sharing. I bought lunch for all three of us for less than $10. Not too shabby, and when when mama's happy... Well, you know the rest.

Old Bear at the entrance to the Perkins Wildlife Center & Woods Garden.
The second half of our visit involved visiting the natural history museum hot spots, namely the dinosaur hall and the outdoor wildlife center. Like most other toddlers and preschoolers, my daughters are big fans of cuddly little animals, and extinct megafauna, so these two areas of the museum are guaranteed winners. Generally, just strolling past the eagles, bobcats, and raccoons on our way back to the otter pond is enough to start them squealing with excitement. Unfortunately, we hit the animals at nap time today, so many of the more charismatic wildlife residents were tucked away in corners snoozing. Fortunately, the dinosaurs in the hall of prehistoric life always show up, and of course today was no exception.

Artfully mounted Tyrannosaurus rex and Triceratops horridus fossil casts appear engaged in a battle for the ages and dominate the center of the hall. These guys are show-stoppers, and on most of our visits a couple of spins around the perimeter provide ample stimulation without much interpretation, but today was different. OBSERVATION #4: My preschooler is now really interested in computer interactives. Touchscreens located at staggered positions around the T. rex display have been there since it was installed two years ago, but Nora never paid any real attention to them, until today. Perhaps now, after a year of preschool, and less than a month from her fourth birthday, she is ready to be more in control of how she consumes information in the exhibits? Or, perhaps she's only just grown tall enough to see the screen on her own. Whatever the reason, she couldn't get enough of diving a little deeper into the details. There was only one problem, all of the juicy details needed to be read aloud to her, as she is still a couple of years away from reading them on her own.

Are you developing an interactive program for your next exhibit? Consider adding a game-track for preschoolers and early readers, replacing written text with audio and pictures. After all, why go to the trouble and expense of producing a computer program full of type, when you could just add another text panel for a fraction of the cost? Get the most bang for your bucks; make sure your interactive is truly interactive, and also appropriate for multiple age groups.

It's common knowledge that if you want to gain valuable insight about how your programs and exhibits are (or are not) reaching your visitors you should walk the floors with a couple members of your target audience. Sure it's common knowledge, but with endless meetings, special projects, and new initiatives, it is hard to make it a common practice. Do your museum a favor and schedule some time this week to tag along on a tour, or take a casual stroll through the galleries. You may be surprised at what you observe and learn in those halls you have walked so many times before.

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