Cameras, Children and Museums

Hello, and welcome to Through the Museoscope. This is my brand-new blog, in which I plan to talk about the things that interest me about visiting, working in, studying, and generally thinking about museums. For more on the name of the blog, check out the ‘About’ menu.

I thought I’d start of by talking a bit about the research that I’m in the process of carrying out right now. I’m currently about 3/4 of the way through a PhD at the very wonderful School of Museum Studies, University of Leicester, UK. My thesis explores young children’s experiences of natural history in museums. After spending the first year and a half thinking about and trying out different methods, audiences and museums, my project ended up at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History (visit it, it’s great!), getting 4- and 5-year-old children visiting with their families to use digital cameras to photograph the things they liked about the museum.

When I started out, I knew that I was going to have to find a method that worked with young children, and that worked in museums. Many museum research methods are unsuitable for working with young children as they depend on literacy and the ability to remember past events clearly, so new methods are needed for working with young children in museums. But likewise, I knew that many possibilities for working with young children would probably not work in the museum setting.

The past few years have seen some great methods developed for consulting with children, and I ended up drawing particularly on the Reggio Emilia approach (strictly speaking an education, rather than a research method), and the Mosaic Approach, developed by Alison Clark and Peter Moss. These approaches use all sorts of fun and active methods to get children thinking about the places where they learn, including drawing, photographing, drama, tours and so on. Some museum evaluators take a similar approach, working with a nursery or school group over a series of weeks, and using a range of methods to get the children’s views. For example, while I was working at Thinktank, Birmingham’s science museum, a children’s consultancy called Playtrain carried out a Reggio-inspired evaluation of one of our new anatomical dolls.

But I wanted to find a method that could be used for everyday visitors, who come to the museum for an hour or so, and then leave. While ongoing projects for museum visitors are wonderful, they don’t represent the majority of visitors’ experiences. So I wondered about using a range of methods, but only using one method with each child, and then piecing together a ‘mosaic’ of the museum rather than of a particular child’s experience.

I also realised that the method would have to be useable in the noisy, stimulating, public space of the museum, in the short amount of time that an average family could spare. I figured that asking the child to draw a picture, or to show me around, or to photograph their visit could all work well in this setting. But when I tried them out, I found that the drawing and the tours were actually pretty hopeless, whilst the photography worked incredibly well.

I think there are a number of reasons for this, but I want to talk particularly about just one of them. As I said, I had realised from the start that my method needed to be suitable for young children and suitable for museums. But what I had failed to piece together was that it needed to be suitable for the type of person that a young child becomes when they are in the museum.

What the child didn’t want to do was to suddenly have to draw pictures for a stranger, or have the stranger trailing around the museum after them. But when I gave the children the chance to spend their visit taking photos, they were more than happy to take part. Children love to copy the behaviour of adults, and in the museum, there are lots of adult visitors walking around taking photographs of the things they like. Why do the adults do this? They do it so they can look back at the pictures, remember their visit, and talk to other people about it. What did I want to achieve in my research? I wanted the children to remember their visit and talk to me about it. And here was a method that allowed me to do that, whilst also allowing the young participants to be like grown-ups, going around the museum with a real digital camera and taking pictures. It was a win-win situation.

The fact that the success of this method (quite accidentally, I must admit) seems to stem from its emulating everyday visitor behaviour has made me wonder whether it could work with other age groups. Young children are quite different from adults in many ways, but the way they use camera and photographs to spark memory and conversation seems to be quite similar. And is there more potential for museum researchers to use other types of everyday visitor behaviour to help us understand their visit? It seems so obvious, but having experienced museum evaluation from the inside, I suspect that, in the frenzy of questionnaires and focus groups, it’s a question that many museum people forget to ask.

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