APSE: An analytical framework for evaluating museum spaces for children and families

What are the best approaches for making sense of different kinds of museum and art gallery spaces for young children?
Introducing the APSE resource, developed as a collaboration between Humber Museums Partnership and Abigail Hackett and Lisa Procter, Centre for the Study of Childhood and Youth, University of Sheffield.

At the start of the Humber Museums Partners’ (HMP) Under Fives in Museums project, learning officers visited a range of other museums, galleries and other site recognised as national examples of good practice with regards to catering for an under fives audience. Each of the Humber Museum partners would be redeveloping spaces in their own sites for an under fives audiences as part of the project, therefore the questions learning officers took with them as they made these visits were in two parts:

  • How do I assess or understand what a space is like from the point of view of young children?
  • How can I make decisions about what aspects of practice or spatial design are best for my own setting?

Humber Museum Partnership wanted their observations to be guided by best practice and theory, and be as useful as possible for informing future practice at their museum services. They approached Centre for the Study of Childhood and Youth, University of Sheffield, who have a well established reputation for research drawing on spatial theory and understanding how children experience spaces. Together we decided to develop a resource, informed by research, which staff could use to make notes, record observations, and reflect on what they observed when they visited different places.

Together we identified some insights from the research which were likely to help with the development of the resource:

  • What models already exist for thinking about how people experience places?
  • How can we best take account of the sensory, embodied and tacit ways in which people, particularly children, experience places?
  • How can we begin to imagine the experience of a place from the point of view of a young child?
  • How can we consult with young children and their families to better understand how they experience or what they want from places they visit?

The APSE resource is informed by contemporary spatial theory. It is designed to be flexible and developed over time, in response to new insights gained through ongoing visits of different sites and settings.

The resource draws on two different constructs of space / place common in the literature; space as either physical or social, and space as either abstract or embodied. This gives us four different ways of thinking about space:

  • Abstract physical
  • Embodied physical
  • Abstract social
  • Embodied social

These four categories are not necessarily comprehensive or exclusive. Rather they acted as a useful heuristic for us as a group to think about the different ways in which spaces might be assessed, understood, described or experienced.

The framework is designed to be used during museum and gallery visits to develop analytical insights through observations, collecting materials and asking questions. Included is a general checklist to gather overarching information at every visit and a focused checklist. The focused checklist is not intended to be completed on every visit, instead it is to be used to support focused visits relating to each quadrant.

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