Friday, April 23, 2010

How Important are Exhibits? - the next installment of our survey report

As a visitor, exhibits are what I see of a museum. As an exhibit developer, exhibits are a large part of my work. As a museum planner, exhibits are but one way in which my non-profit clients fulfill their mission and serve their audience. And, the recent building boom among museums has put huge pressure on exhibits, often in tension with the community building and other work museums do. So I wanted to know: What role do exhibits play in children's museums? How do children's museums divide their efforts?

We surveyed 42 children’s museums in the Association of Children’s Museums US membership and found that not all museums even have exhibits. In fact, more museums offer pre-scheduled facilitated activities (41) than offer drop-in exhibits (38).

Of the 38 Museums that do offer exhibits, 30 also have self-directed drop-in workshop activities and 36 have staff-facilitated drop-in (or on-demand) workshop activities available.

Clearly, these museums do not see exhibits as the solution to every problem. They are complementing their exploratory environments with programs and activities that help them to meet their visitors’ needs. And in some cases, they may be offering only programming and not be managing a physical plant at all.

This may be good news. We know that self-choice learning is central to the development of inquiry skills, critical thinking, knowledge seeking behavior, goal setting, and other fundamental skill sets that contribute to lifelong learning. These are things that exhibits are particularly good at, especially when the social dimensions of museum-based learning are taken into account.

How can museums offer visitors "a critical dose"?

However, really having an impact on visitors’ behaviors and attitudes requires sustained relationships and may also be more effective when staff is available to mentor and scaffold. This suggests that programs play a vital role in helping museums fulfill their missions. In addition, many museums are working toward becoming a critical resource in their community by promoting repeat visitation, linking museum experiences to the home and school, and facilitating collaboration. Some of these goals are also better met with staff facilitation, and structured programs.

In fact, 13 of the museums in our survey, so nearly 28%, say they have activities that visitors can complete over multiple visits to the museum while 9 offer projects that visitors start at the museum and finish at home, and 5 encourage visitors to start a project at home and complete it in the museum.

Creating an iterative relationship

At the same time, only 6 museums in our survey are using social networking sites or other web resources to create an on-going dialogue among visitors. And only 5 of the museums in our survey have a way for visitors to email themselves from the museum, creating opportunities to revisit and reflect on their museum experience from home. So it appears that children’s museums are still focusing largely on the visit – on touching visitors directly - whether that is through an exhibit or a workshop, held on-site or off.

Children’s museums, by and large, are not encouraging visitors to use the internet to post and comment on projects made at the museum, or on museum experiences. They are not seeing a website as another exhibit platform. They are embracing the idea of peer-to-peer learning and cooperation by offering activities in their museums that work better when more than one user to work together (20 say they do this). Yet they are not taking advantage of the web to build a community around the museum organization.

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