Cathy Donnelly recounts a multi-year initiative from The Children's Museum of Indianapolis to study what families do in museums and how they interact with each other and with exhibits during their visit. They came up with three ways to create family-friendly experiences: selecting objects, designing interactives, and writing labels.
Fun for the Whole Family: New Directions at Children's Museums
A Family Learning Roundtable Presentation
by Cathy Donnelly
June 14, 2005
In 2001, The Children's Museum of Indianapolis launched a Family Learning Initiative with Lynn Dierking and her colleagues at the Institute for Learning Innovation. The initiative was a multi-year effort focusing on research, evaluation, and professional development. This initiative had an impact on how we design and develop exhibits in three ways:
- From the research, we learned why families come to our museum.
- We also learned what families do and how they interact during their visit.
- Using what we learned, we began to design family-friendly exhibits that engage our audience.
Families usually come to our museum with a social agenda. They want to explore and to do things together. This impacts our exhibits because families do not want to read long text panels or sit by themselves at computer interactives.
Families interact in fairly predictable ways at our museum. A typical 90 minute visit would include the following:
- Orientation (3-10 minutes)
- Intense exhibition viewing (25-30 minutes)
- Exhibition Cruising (25-30 minutes)
- Leave taking (5-10 minutes)
When we looked at the “intense exhibition viewing” part of the cycle, we realized that we have a relatively short time to get across our main messages or to set the stage for family meaning-making.
In 2001, we began a three-year project to design a new dinosaur gallery. Based on the research, we looked at three ways we could create family-friendly experiences:
- Selecting Objects— We choose objects from focus groups and from curator's programs where families examined and discussed a variety of objects.
- Designing Interactives— We developed an educational matrix using PISEC criteria and others that we added. This tool helped keep us focused on designing interactives that appealed to a variety of learning preferences and ages.
- Writing Labels— We wrote family-friendly labels that:
- Anticipated questions families might ask
- Encouraged family discussion
- Helped families make a personal connections
- Were short and simple
Testing was an important part of the exhibit development process. We tested both interactives and labels if and how families were engaged.
Suggestions for history museums from a colleague in the children's museum field:
- Find out why your family visitors come to your museum and what they do during their visit.
- Think about ways you might select objects that appeal to families.
- Design interactives using family-friendly criteria.
- Write labels to spark family discussion and engagement.