Last year I carried out research in collaboration with Eureka! The National Children’s Museum, Dr Hannah Fairbrother and colleagues at Centre for the Study of Childhood and Youth. The research was funded by University of Sheffield Knowledge Exchange fund, and we hoped that questions Eureka! had about the recently opened ‘All About Me’ exhibition, on how the body works and how to keep healthy, could be addressed by bringing together both Hannah’s and my own doctoral research. Hannah’s doctorate looked at how young children make sense of and interpret the health messages they encounter in their everyday lives. My doctorate looked at the experiences of 2-4 year old children visiting museums.
The research methodology was a collaborative ethnographic study of a group of children from the onsite Eureka nursery (2-4 years) visiting the exhibition over a 6 month period. The collaborative approach to the data collection and analysis was fantastic in itself, and something I will write more about in a future blog post. It was wonderful to combine researchers’ expertise on doing research with the nursery staff’s expertise in the children themselves, and the museum staff, who have in depth knowledge of the exhibition and how visitors engage with it. University researchers, nursery staff and museum staff collected fieldnotes, video footage, still images, kept diary logs and interviewed some of the parents of the children participating in the study.
Our research questions were about how the children engaged with the exhibition, what messages from the exhibition they took into other spaces, and how social context (visiting with nursery friends versus family) influenced the visit. I was keen to focus generally on the children’s experience of the amazing, often quite surreal, ‘All About Me’ gallery space. At the same time, the question of how and if the young children were learning about health and the body through the exhibition, was also constantly in our minds.
As an example, a role play area about visiting the dentist seemed to offer some very solid, convincing outcomes of the children learning about how to look after their bodies and keep healthy. The children role played visiting the dentist in this part of the exhibition, using the full size dentist’s chair and toy dental tools. They also discussed, with each other and the nursery staff, the process of brushing their teeth at home, and reasons why it is important to brush teeth. One of the children had a dental appointment the day after visiting the exhibition, so was able to talk about this in the museum. The next day, she told the group about visiting the dentist and role played dentists (similar to the play in the exhibition) at nursery. Pia Christensen (2000) has called this kind of process ‘bricolage’, in that children are bringing together lots of different kinds of experiences from different contexts in order to help make sense of their own experiences of their bodies. We are interested in the role of the museum in this ‘bricolage’. The exhibits in the museum offered something unique, in that there was nowhere else the children could have played on a full size dentist’s chair in this way. However, perhaps the museum also created a neutral or ‘third’ space, not home or nursery, in which children could bring together some different ways of knowing, thinking about, or experiencing dental care.
In contrast to the dentist’s chair play, trying to describe how some of the other aspects of the children’s engagement in the gallery was leading to learning about health seemed to be missing the point. We are currently writing a paper about the project, and have provisionally called it “taking seriously what happens in the moment”. One example of the children’s play which was more difficult to classify as ‘learning about health and the body’ was the children’s interaction with giant sized body parts in the exhibition – particularly a huge nose and huge tongue. The children jumped on these body parts, slid down the tongue and put their heads up the nose. There was little evidence the children were building understandings of how these body parts worked through these interactions (although this may have been the case with older children), but they were engaging to the children and central to their experience of the exhibition. The children often mentioned the giant body parts when they talk about what was in the exhibition. Some children felt fear mixed with interest in the nose, because it ‘sneezed’ loudly in an unpredictable pattern. These parts of the data set seem to resist neat explanation. I really like what Pauliina Rautio has to say about these sorts of moments:
To witness something seemingly pointless, yet inherently rewarding for those who engage with it, is an occasion to ask: what is it that takes place in the moment?
Rautio, 2013, p.6
I’m writing this blog post during the first National Museums and Wellbeing week. Ways in which museums and arts can support health and wellbeing is high on the agenda, however, it is surprising how many of these initiatives are directed at adults. Perhaps this is because museums, health and wellbeing is an emerging field, and as Ander et al (2013) outline, early investigations into arts, culture and wellbeing centred on impact on adult’s mental health and hospital stays. Researching in the ‘All About Me’ exhibition prompted our thinking about the various ways in which museums, arts and health might intersect for children. The focus of this initial research project was on possible ways in which an exhibition could help children to understand how their bodies worked and how to keep healthy. Early years policy places an emphasis on starting good health habits, such as teeth brushing and healthy eating, as early as possible, in order to encourage healthy choices in later years. However in addition, children’s experiences of visiting museums are often very embodied; movement, exploration and play involve children moving the body through a place. As well as the physical impact of moving around, we could also think about the emotional effects of moving in different ways in different kinds of places. What sorts of physical and emotional sensations does movement, play and exploration in museums offer children? Thirdly, in a context where media reports that children are more stressed today than they have ever been, could we think about how experiencing art, being in different kinds of spaces, or even experiencing freedom to explore, play and interact in new ways in a neutral ‘third’ space (neither home nor school) such as a museum could support children’s wellbeing? Whilst there is a well developed body of research on how children (mostly older children than those in our study) learn science concepts through talk and interaction in museum exhibitions, I am interested in thinking more about the experiential, physical, emotional aspects of how museums could support children’s health and wellbeing.
Whilst we write up our findings of this research, a good way to find out more about the process of the doing the project, and some of the themes that started to emerge, is to take a look at the booklet we produced on the coproduction of the research. A pdf of the booklet can be downloaded here:
Ander, E. et al (2013) Heritage, health and well-being: assessing the impact of a heritage focused intervention on health and well-being. International Journal of Heritage Studies, 19:3, 229-242.
Christensen, P. (2000) Childhood and the Cultural Construction of Vulnerable Bodies. In The body, childhood and society Prout A. (ed.). (Basingstoke: Macmillan). P.38-59
Rautio, P. (2013). Children who carry stones in their pockets: on autotelic material practices in everyday life. Children’s Geographies, 11(4): 394-408.