Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Cognitive Research in Museums

I spent yesterday at the Museum of Science, Boston where a group of NEMA members gathered to talk about how three local museums are working with research scientists, and connecting academic research to visitors.

The museums - MOS, Boston Children's Museum, and The Discovery Museums in Acton - are all coordinating their efforts. In fact, the Living Laboratory at MOS is serving as a mentor and model for the other two museums. BCM has structured their partnerships with researchers on the MOS model, and DCM is using three of the exhibit components from Living Labs as prototypes for experiences at their own museum.

Yet, what struck me most about the conversation was the range of ways each of these museums thought about the role of research in their museum, the goals for that research, and the way the research could and should influence their visitor experiences.

How are they different?

The Museum of Science has a science literacy goal - they want adults to be interested in science, to feel like science is something they can understand, see it as relevant to their lives, and to have the tools to decode science information that they get through the media and other popular sources. Children are something adults are interested in, and therefore a natural subject for engaging adults.

The Children's Museum is also interested in helping adults feel comfortable with science; in particular with child development research, and with analyzing information. They are also interested in building strong learning relationships between adults and children and see research as one way to help adults understand what children's play is all about and how children learn. BCM also has a parent education program, Families First, and is not afraid to give parents information about parenting.

The Discovery Museums have similar goals of helping parents learn about children, and about themselves. At the moment, they do not have a lot of information for adults either as graphics, handouts or on line. A recent survey strongly suggests that they should move in this direction. But as a small museum (140,000 annual attendance and $1MM operating budget), they are not in a position to run a research lab - at least not until they expand. Instead, they are focused on installing some small exhibit components, and on parent communication strategies.

The big contrast here is that MOS does not believe that exhibit experiences can change visitor behavior and so does not see its cognitive science research program as telling adults how to best help their children's development. It is about science process and information analysis. For the Children's Museum, being a resource for adults on child development, answering questions and supporting parents, is a key part of their work. And this is the direction the Discovery Museums is heading as well. BCM goes even further - taking this to a level of advocacy. They want parents to know that school readiness begins at birth, and how to help their children be successful.

What do they look like?

The Lab - Well for one thing, they are out in the public, at least in part. At MOS you never leave the exhibition floor to participate in research. This is intentional. And at BCM the Playlab, while off the floor for logistical reasons, is also open on friday nights when the drop-in audience is at its most diverse. But they are redoing Playspace and plan to include an active lab space where visitors and researchers interact.

Exhibit Components - all of these museums see research having an impact on the visitor experience. MOS has an infant area with three experiments set up for adults to try with their children. This is what DCM is piloting as well.

BCM is looking at other ways to integrate the research into the new
Playspace which they expect to open in 2012.

Website - At the moment, MOS is the only one of these three museums using the web to link the research on the floor to research in general. BCM is taking a new look at their website and plans to use it more as an education tool and less as a pure marketing opportunity, so more to come from them in the future. The Discovery Museums is working with Boston University students to produce some original videos about child development for their website. That will be fun to see unveiled.

Who benefits?

Visitors are an audience for the research. Not the kids really - they are the subjects - but the adults get debriefed and this information is intended to help them learn a little about science, and a little about their kids. I asked if any parents really misbehave, thinking that their child has done a bad job or acted inappropriately. The answer was yes, sure, but that great pains are taken to explain that each child is contributing to the sample, and their behavior helps demonstrate the range of behaviors that can be expected from children. So linking the individual child to children in general.

The researchers, it turns out, get many benefits from these partnerships. They get experience in an informal learning setting, and they have access to many possible participants. New research questions arise out of conversations with parents. They also receive extensive training in science communication with the general public. All of this helps them find funding.

Museum educators - they interact with the researchers through briefings, workshops, and on the floor. So the research program adds a dimension to their professional development.

Resources to run program?

MOS has had NSF/ISE funding for the last 3 years but it ends in June. In addition they have had a fellow position funded by a private donor. Someone asked if researchers weren't expected to use their grant funding to help pay for the use of the museum. MOS is planning to do this moving forward. BCM's current research lab was paid for by MIT, which also outfitted it with all the equipment. Because of this other researchers who use the space work out the details with MIT. This arrangement has been very successful for BCM.

BCM shares the responsibility for this work among a few staffers. Moving forward their vision is to organize all Research and Evaluation under on fellow, and coordinate those activities throughout the museum.

DCM has one staffer working on this project, among the many other things that she does.

In addition, to do human subject studies the museums also need to have an IRB in place. This is something that these museums have asked their research partners to help with because it can be pretty complicated and involved.


This list is not comprehensive, and it does not include the possible partners who have approached one of these three museums about future studies. But it gives you a sense of departments (and the range of disciplines) that are doing work that relates to the museum audience and which can be conducted in that setting.

Types of studies?

Again, I am not trying to be comprehensive so much as give you a sense of the incredible range of research questions that can connect with a museum. All of these topics have been avenues of research at either MOS or BCM:

* Mathematical cognition - such as estimating large numbers
* Stereotyping
* Causal learning through play
* How does competition affect learning?
* How do kids conceptualize art and music? for instance, if you play 2 kinds of music and say each is the favorite piece of another child, which child does the subject want to be friends with?
* How does art-making affect mood?
* Austism and play

My questions

At the end of the day I was left with a couple of key questions. One is: what makes something a cognitive research exhibit? We were talking briefly about the Providence Children's Museum and their interest in taking research relationships that they already have to the next level. Someone suggested that Play Power could become a cognitive research exhibit with the addition of a few labels. That really made me wonder how we were defining a "research exhibit". Play Power is great. I love it, my kids love it. But how is it that a few graphics makes the difference between the charming exhibit already there, and one that is about research?

More generally, I'm interested in how research can inform the visitor experience. We are all used to working with evaluation reports that look at how visitors actually use exhibits, and act in them. And in children's museums we are also working with a developmental framework when we develop exhibits. But aside from re-enacting research experiments, aren't there other ways that research can influence how we design and plan our exhibits, our graphics, and maybe most importantly, our expectations about visitor outcomes?

When we were working on Skyline one of the major goals was to design an exhibit that could be used to research how DESIGN could encourage adult participation with their children. We thought of adults as "play partners" and we identified behaviors that indicated different levels of involvement. It was meant to be iterative so that the exhibit would lead to new insights and those could in turn be tested directly in the exhibit. This is a little different from what MOS, BCM, and DCM are doing.

There was also an interesting question raised in the meeting about living labs for other kinds of scientists. Science Museum of Minnesota has a paleontology lab. But a chemistry lab? Or putting an anthropologist in the Human Body Connection? How about robotics and engineering labs in museums? I'm working on a project right now where there is a similar idea to do a living lab for media innovators, although I don't know what it will look like yet.

1 comment:

scott davidson said...

What an interesting blog, introduced by a thought-provoking photo. The unusual wall painting of the dwellings is also a strangely modern interpretation. Something like this hieroglyphic view of a park by Swiss painter Paul Klee, http://EN.WahooArt.com/A55A04/w.nsf/OPRA/BRUE-8LT475.
The image can be seen at wahooart.com who can supply you with a canvas print of it.