Shelves of Zebras

This lovely display of zebras can be found at the Natural History Museum’s outpost at Tring. It’s a delightful museum, built around the collections of Walter Rothschild, a classic British eccentric aristocrat. There are pictures of Rothschild riding around on giant tortoises, with a lettuce leaf held out on a stick to encourage them to walk, and another of him in a carriage pulled by zebras (I don’t know if any of the ones in the picture pulled his carriage…).

Rothschild decided aged seven that he would run a zoological museum. This makes me feel a certain affinity towards him, as I too had childhood yearnings towards museums Continue reading

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Welcome to the gallery of the real

Some time last year I was in a natural history gallery with a Natural History Museum educator from the USA. I asked her, “What question do children most commonly ask in your museum?”, already anticipating that the answer would be, “Is it real?”. I was right, of course, with children’s favoured question number two, on both sides of the pond, being, “Did you kill it?”.

The world over, young children seem to be totally baffled by taxidermy. A couple of months ago I visited the Oxford University Museum of Natural History with my two nephews, aged seven and four. They spent most of the visit trying to get their heads around the relationship between ‘real’, ‘alive’ and ‘dead’. “But when are we going to see the real ones?”, they kept asking. And they weren’t convinced by my patient, rational response that these were real, they were just the skins of dead animals that someone had stuffed to make them look alive. To the boys, ‘real’ meant ‘alive’ Continue reading

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Small town museums, or museums of small towns?

Today we escaped the hustle and bustle of big city (ok, Leicester) life, and headed down to the pretty little town of Market Harborough, in search of charity bookshops, cake and the wonders of its local museum. Harborough Museum was full of visitors having a great time – kids (ok, and some grown-ups) dressing up and exploring baskets of toys, and lots of people reading finding out about local life and the history of the town. But it did make me wonder: why do small town museums focus almost universally on their local area? Continue reading

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Biophobophilia, or, why children (sort of) love big, pointy teeth

During the course of my research at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon. This may not come as a surprise to those of you with children, or who actually remember being a child, but it seems that children really love animals with scary teeth. In this particular museum, the favourites seem to be a large stuffed crocodile, and a model T. rex head.

My PhD research involves getting 4- and 5-year-old children to photograph things they like in the museum, and then talk to me about the pictures. Two thirds of the children photographed this head. And when it was mentioned in interviews, children often told me that they liked it (it was sometimes a favourite), that they liked it’s sharp teeth, and that they had put their hands in its mouth or touched its teeth. Continue reading

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Observation Notes: Not All Bones are Dinosaurs

Elephant skeletons

Over the past couple of years I’ve spent a lot of time at the wonderful Oxford University Museum of Natural History, where I’m carrying out my PhD research. Although the bulk of my research has involved getting four- and five-year-olds to take photographs for me (as I described in my very first post), I have spent almost as much time wandering around and around the museum, observing visitors more generally.

I really love doing observations. I think it’s easy to imagine that most museum visits are quite mundane – we see the other visitors milling around, or we mill around ourselves, and everything blends into the hubbub of the crowds. But when you start paying attention to the individual conversations, you see that actually the museum glitters with gems of quirky conversation and idiosyncratic behaviour that reveal the individuality of each visitor’s experience. Continue reading

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100 Languages of Visitors

I said “Do you speak-a my language?”
He just smiled and gave me a Vegemite sandwich

Land Down Under, Men at Work

When I worked in a museum in multicultural Birmingham (UK), myself and the other staff would sometimes worry about whether or not we should provide any of the museum text or leaflets in additional languages other than English. Since starting my PhD I’ve gone back to thinking about the languages used in museums, but my concept of language has changed somewhat.

My research in part draws on the Reggio Emilia approach. For those of you not familiar with early childhood education (probably the majority of you), this is a progressive preschool education system from northern Italy, much beloved of and envied by nursery teachers everywhere. One of the concepts that Reggio educators like to use is that of the “100 languages of children”. They don’t mean “language” in the sense of English, French or Mandarin, but rather any means by which children take in information about the world, and then express their understanding to other people.  Continue reading

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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. Continue reading

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