Findings from the APSE toolkit: Humber Museums Partnership and CSCY investigating how young children experience museums

Following our previous post about the development of the APSE toolkit, this post is an update on the project. You can read more about the development of the APSE toolkit, and the background to this partnership work between CSCY and Humber Museums Partnership here.


On Wednesday 27th January 2016 Abigail Hackett and Lisa Procter met with museum practitioners from Humber Museums Partnership to analyse the notes they had made during museum visits using the APSE toolkit, a resource we developed collaboratively to evaluate museum spaces for young children and families. The learning officers, Ros, Christine and Esther, had conducted nine visits to museums outside the Humber region. They brought with them their completed observations and we used this as a starting point for thinking about best practice in terms of engaging children and families in museum spaces.

In order to begin to identify recurring and significant observations from the APSE notes we used paper, coloured pens and post-its. Staff (museum and research) started by reading through their observation notes and underlining with different coloured pens anything they noticed recurring often in the notes, anything that seemed particularly significant or important in the notes, and anything that seemed unusual or surprising. After this, everyone worked towards creating a series of post-it notes, using the same coloured pens as before, summarising the key observations they had underlined. We began to lay these post-it notes out on the floor, and then group them according to key categories and themes. This process draws on techniques researchers use when they do thematic data analysis. The process of highlighting sections of text and creating categories is called coding, and the categories or groups and sub-groups that get identified are often called themes.

A range of themes came from our discussions. The themes have been shaped into a set of questions, which are outlined below, that we hope are helpful for museum practitioners when considering engagement within their own museum settings. These themes do not provide explicit/unified guidance on best practice, but instead reflect the ways that different museums will require different approaches to children and family engagement.

Our discussions reflected the importance of alignment across all levels of museum organisations, including facilities management, recruitment, marketing, with certain principles around how children and families would be engaged. We recognised the significance of cost as a constraint, but also felt that there are creative ways of working within tight budgets.

What balance between immersion and activity would be most suitable for the museum setting?

The different museums the practitioners visited seemed to sit along a continuum between immersion and activity. We discussed how some museum spaces seemed to prioritise immersive experiences, in these instances the space was positioned as the facilitator and children and families were free to engage with this on their own terms. In the activity-led museums, the spaces seemed more neutral so that they could support a range of activities led by practitioners. In these cases the practitioner and activity were positioned as facilitator. We discussed how both approaches were appropriate, and that the approach taken would depend on the requirements of a specific museum setting.

How can we convey what objects can and can’t be touched? If objects cannot be handled, in what ways can children encounter objects so that feel they are touching them?

We talked about the ways that children seemed to experience a sense of touching objects even when they were behind glass. For example, children reaching out to touch fish behind glass in an aquarium, or delighting in touching glass cases. We also discussed how the placing of objects at different heights could encourage or discourage children to handle them. The learning officers felt that it was important to convey clear messages to children and adults about what can and can’t be touched; this could be done through signs but also through the ways that objects are placed.

How can resources be developed that consider how children’s experience the museum through their body and senses?

We discussed how the physical act of carrying resources around (such a clip boards or activity packs) may be a barrier to children’s impromptu engagement with the museum spaces and its objects. We discussed how resources could be integrated within the museum spaces and framed around experiential highlights. For example, we spoke about how getting into a Victorian bathtub at one of the museums was really fun for children, but some didn’t know they could do this. We felt that these types of highlights could be made more visible to parents. Another idea that was discussed was the rolling of a large inflatable dice to decide where to go in the museum. Faces of the dice would, for example, invite a child to find a place in the museum where they wanted to dance. These kinds of resources encourage children’s agency and move away from the linearity of museum trail techniques.

What kind of balance between dwelling and movement would be appropriate for this museum setting?

We discussed how some museum spaces are filled with nooks and crannies that make children and families want to dwell, to sit and engage with a book or activity. Other spaces are open and big and encourage children to move quickly around the space, such as running with friends. We talked about how different types of spaces provoke different kinds of movements. It is important, we think, to consider what kinds of movement (or contrasts between different kinds of spaces and movements) we want in museum spaces and then design spaces/exhibits to reflect this.

What kinds of interactions between children and adults does this museum setting want to encourage?

In our discussions about the museums the practitioners visited, we noticed that some settings sought to separate child/adult areas, whereas others brought all age groups together. We reflected on the ways that museums may target multiple audiences, such as school children, older people, teenagers, who might have conflicting needs and wants from the space. However, we also recognised the value of creating opportunities for different generations of people to come together in museum settings.

How can access be considered in broad terms?

We felt that considering the access needs of children and families was central to making museum spaces welcoming for these audiences. We talked about things like having children’s meals available in the café, baby change toilets, or including highchairs in children’s workshops so that very young children can participate. In addition, we thought about the ways that museum activities might be experienced by different families, depending on parenting styles of past experiences. For example, a ‘messy’ workshop might be valued by some parents but not by others. We also discussed more practical issues, such as getting to the museum. This raised the question of which families are museums engaging and which ones are they not. This also led into a discussion about marketing, and what kinds of marketing materials appeal to both children and parents.

How can we support children’s agency whilst recognising the need for certain constraints?

We all shared the perspective that it is valuable to support children’s agency as museum visitors. However, we also recognised that there can be constraints to this, which may be related to, for example, educational curricular objectives during school visits, objects not being able to be handled, a requirement to keep spaces tidy, children’s sense of trepidation and lack of confidence. We felt that it was important to consider what constraints were being imposed upon children and why. By asking this question, it is possible to consider which constraints are necessary and which are not.


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