Relevant experiences help families make connections between exhibit content or program activities and their own lives. 1

kids in hammocks

Why it is Important

Designing experiences that resonate with families supports learning and meaning making. Research shows that when people can connect to a concept on an intellectual and emotional level, they are more likely to engage with it, remember it, and learn from it: “What children attend to and remember from their museum experiences is highly correlated with the presence of familiar concepts or experiences, either contemporary or historic, with which the children could make strong links.” 2

It is the program designer’s and facilitator’s job to, as Heather Nielsen argues, “support connections to daily life.” In the video below, Heather explains that concept while Beverly Sheppard calls upon us to determine our program goals in order to meet that need:

Put it into Practice

When determining content, consider what connections you might make, even simple ones, to people’s lives and experiences. World trends, timely topics in the news, holidays, broad themes and universal experiences (something every person can relate to, i.e. food, sleep, work, love, clothing, etc.) are relevant connection points. Incorporating reflective questions into program discussion or exhibit elements can help families make connections and compare different ways of life. 

Compare and Contrast

Questions that place visitors back in historical time help them empathize and provide an opportunity to compare and contrast life today with life in the past.

The hammocks at the USS Constitution Museum’s All Hands on Deck exhibit consistently rate as the most popular interactive. In observations we noticed that the hammocks are used by visitors of all ages. They are a center for conversation, often between unrelated visitors. To use this conversation as a way to help visitors find relevance, we added questions and answers to the ceiling of the hammock area. Many visitors read these short pieces of text out loud: Have you ever swung in a hammock? Are you willing to do it next to 200 of your closest friends who haven’t taken a bath in a while?

These questions and resulting conversations help visitors empathize with sailors aboard Constitution. Prompting this lifestyle comparison is just one way the exhibit helps visitors connect to the past.

kids in hammocks
Visitors engaging with the hammocks in the berth deck of All Hands on Deck.

Make Connections

Connecting new concepts with something familiar helps adults and children find relevance in an experience.

At the USS Constitution Museum, program facilitators actively try to make the history they share relevant to our visitors by making connections to modern life. In our Ready, Aim, Fire! program, the introduction to cannons in battle and gun crews is necessary to provide context for the task at hand, but it can get abstract. Facilitators help families visualize the distance a cannon can fire by equating the 400 yards to the length of four football fields.

Learn more about how facilitation creates relevance in Continue the Experience.

1 This concept is one of the seven characteristics of family-friendly exhibits identified by PISEC. [Borun, Minda, et al. Family Learning in Museums: The PISEC Perspective. Philadelphia: Philadelphia/Camden Informal Science Education Collaborative (PISEC), The Franklin Institute, 1998.]

2 Munley, Mary Ellen. Early Learning in Museums: A Literature Review. MEM and Associates and Smithsonian Institution’s Early Learning Collaborative Network. Web (2012): 9. This paper summarizes the results of research conducted in museum settings or in other locations using learning resources and materials designed by museums.