In just a few days Chuck Howarth is participating in an ASTC Lightening Talk on the importance of design in exhibitions. We are truly excited about being part of this incredible panel, and to be talking about how design contributes to learning in museums. The ways in which design can influence behavior, leading visitors toward deeper inquiry, new understandings, stronger relationships, and more durable engagement are key questions in our work. As architect and theorist Sanford Kwinter once wrote, our work presumes that
"Space is not a passive, unchanging physical object inside of which interesting things happen but is actually the interesting thing itself: a living tissue constantly changing and adapting to events.”
For this session, each participant was asked to select an article to discuss focused on the science of design. Chuck's will look at the ways different lighting - from fluorescents to daylighting - have been shown to influence people's actions and decisions. I will post a link to his paper after the conference.
This is a concrete example of how specific, identifiable design decisions can affect the resulting user experience. And there is quite a lot of literature documenting the importance of discrete aspects of our environment on our behavior: The affect of color on mood , the importance of a middle distance to rest the gaze while listening to complex information , and how literally getting a new perspective (through a mirror or a balcony) can lead to new understandings.
All of these studies make the case that design matters. We are convinced design is that much more important in an environment intentionally designed to support learning - like a museum. And there are a number of technical publications from places like NAEYC and others that translate what we know about the qualities of light, space, materials, views, scale, smell, etc. into design for children. Anita Rui Olds wrote extensively about therapeutic environments, and others have focused on preschools and playgrounds.
When it comes to the big picture the discussion becomes more theoretical, interdisciplinary, and, frankly, harder. To really get at the issues you might look at urban planning, public art, environmental psychology, art education, environmental education, and public policy, just to name a few disciplines that think about this.
Reggio refers to “the environment as the third teacher” which I think is a very nice way of making something so complex into an easy-to-understand nugget. The big idea, or thread, linking all of this together is that our environment, generally, provides affordances that stimulate certain behaviors. Since behavior - asking questions, taking risks, experimenting, engaging, contributing, collaborating, reading, etc - is the basis for learning, museums need to be thoughtful about creating environments that will stimulate "learning behaviors".
In preparing for the conference session we rounded up some of our favorite writing on the subject of the role of design in learning environments. We are also interested in what you all read on the subject. Do you have a go-to work on the importance of design that you would recommend to your peers?
- From Cartwheels to Caterpillars: Children's Need to Move Indoors and Out, Anita Rui Olds. Anita Olds was at the lab school at Tufts and moved to Menlo Park later in her life. She worked on formal ed environments and children's hospitals. As an environmental psychologist she understood the way design can support learning, healing, healthy development, and promote certain desirable behaviors as well as attitudes.
- Playing in the Gutters: Enhancing Children's Cognitive and Social Play, Sue A. Dinwiddie. Former head of the Bing Nursery School at Stanford. This particular article focuses on how a simple addition to a play area - gutters to sandbox - can completely change the children's learning and exploration behaviors.
- Kids don't need equiment, they need opportunity, by Ellen Ruppel Shell. This is published in the Smithsonian from 1994. Its about the need to give kids environments they can change. First page, 3rd paragraph: "Ideally, a child's play space should never be finished, it should be in a constant state of change." Those are words to live by in a museum!
- Spaces for Children: The Built Environment and Child Development, ed Carol Simon Weinstein and Thomas G David. Chapter 2 in The Development of Place Identity in the Child, Harold Proshansky and Abbe K. Fabian. These guys are from City University in NY. They are interested in how kids derive meaning from their physical environment. And their references are great.
- Designing for Play: Beautiful Spaces Are Playful Places, Anita Rui Olds. This is more specifically about healing environments so it stakes out her position on children's hospital design and how it can be tuned to support children's healing.
- The Built Environment and Children's Health, Susan Kay Cummins, Senior Health Policy Advisor, National Center for Environmental Health, CDC. This is about policy and how high level decisions about public space impact children's tragectories over the long term.
- Growing by Design: The 1990 International Design Conference in Aspen, A Notebook, Jane Clark Chermayeff. Published in Children's Environments Quarterly. This is a report on a conference and because Jane is a museum person she is able to talk about how the issues apply specifically to the work we all do.
- Children's Friendship with Place: A Conceptual Inquiry. Sudeshna Chatterjee. In this paper Chatterjee tries to unpack what contributes to the current of emotional good feeling when children become attached to a place. This has always seemed very appropriate to museum work, and with the interest in Boston Stories - which are all about how kids form memories of museums - and John Falk's work on the role of emotion for learning in museums, I think even more this is a useful theory.
- What If. . . Re-Imagining Learning Spaces, Futurelab. This paper lays out a concept for what educational facilities need to be able to do, and then starts to suggest what they might look like.