Research Methods for Exploring Children’s Experiences of Museums

At the end of May, I organised an event on behalf of CSCY called ‘Research Methods for Exploring Children’s Experiences of Museums’. It was attended by 45 participants from museums up and down the country, consultants and researchers. The event was great fun, and represented the culmination of much of the work I have been doing with CSCY over the last 18 months, bringing together different disciplinary perspectives (health, education, design, architecture…) to think about children in museums specifically from the point of view of the children themselves.

This perspective was exemplified firstly in the choice of the term ‘experience’ rather than ‘learning’ in museums. Reflecting back on the context during which I moved from museum practice to research (around 2010), there was at the time a very strong focus on children’s learning in museums. Most energy was put into attracting primary school children to museums through school visits, and in addition there was lots of work engaging young people (and other audiences that were perceived as hard to reach) through community outreach work. One of the pervading motifs of this work was a focus on ‘learning’; this was exemplified by the Generic Learning Outcomes for example, in which skills, knowledge, creativity, attitudes, behaviour were all conceptualised as forms of learning. In her keynote presentation, Elee Kirk (UCL) added to this argument by pointing out that across the museums literature, children are generally considered either as ‘little learners’ or as members of a family group, rather than museum visitors in their own right.

Whilst I would not contest that museums can facilitate children’s learning, the sessions at the event last week drew on a wider interest in children’s experiences in museums. This focus on experience feels more open, more able to encounter things that happen during visits which are child led, things that perhaps seem to defy adult’s logical explanation. Throughout the day, the focus of the session was on experimentations with methods to help us understand different facets of children’s own experiences in museums. In addition, four themes ran through the day:


1)      Collaboration

This was about thinking about how we can achieve more together than separately, through collaboration between academics, museum sector, families and children. In particular, how can be draw together different kinds of expertise and different ways of knowing to understand children’s museum visiting in deeper ways? Academics may know the literature and different theories to bring to thinking about experiences of place, but museum staff know their spaces and collections best, nursery staff know their key children very well, parents and carers know the intimate details of how their children show their interest and engagement. So several sessions across the day were interested in thinking about how these different forms of knowledge can work together.

2)      The rising importance of the digital and the visual.

Children, whose experiences we are interested in understanding, are growing up in a world in which billions of images are uploaded to the internet every day. Photography practices today are markedly different to practices in the past, and being digitally photographed, seeing these images immediately, and knowing these images can be uploaded to the internet and shared widely, are all aspects of children’s everyday lives (in the UK). Riviere (2005) has written about how mobile camera phones have changed photography (by separating it from the camera as a rarefied object), making photography more frequent, more spontaneous, more disposable. Several of the session at the event were about considering the increasingly digital, visual world in which children are living, and the implications of this for both museums and research methods.

3)      Experiences are sensory and embodied

An over-arching message from the most recent research on children’s experiences in museums is about the way in which these experiences go beyond words. Children’s experiences in museums are sensory, embodied, dominated by moving around, interacting with stuff, and using their bodies. Many of the sessions picked up on this theme, by thinking about how research methods can focus not just on what children say, but on what they do, and what they experience with their bodies.

4)      Listening to the voices of children themselves

Developing research methods to help respond to the voices of children themselves, and understand their own perspectives, is at the heart of what CSCY is about. ‘Listening’ to what children tell us about their experiences could involve both listening to their words, but also observing what they show us through their actions, and being mindful of the ways in which communication can happen through the body. During the day we were also interested in thinking about how to capture some of these messages from children, through writing, drawing, photography and other means.

I’m very grateful for all the fantastic speakers who presented papers and ran sessions at the event. A Storify summary of the event is available here:

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