The perceptions and behaviour of children and their families in child-orientated museum exhibitions
This study explores the part that child-orientated exhibitions play in the child and family museum experience. Such exhibitions are characterised by their distinctive approaches to learning, interpretation, and design, being especially devised for children. The research was carried out in children's galleries from three types of museum (a maritime museum, a science museum, and a children's museum) in order to compare and contrast similarities and differences between them. Since most of the research in this area has been carried out in science centres or science museums, there is a need to explore the situation in child-orientated exhibitions and compare it to studies carried out in other informal learning settings. Understanding the qualities of their experience in a child-orientated exhibition which children and families value and why and how design and interpretation decisions may affect family behaviour, perceptions, and learning, will enable educators, museum designers and other museum professionals to plan more responsive and meaningful child-centred exhibitions. Children from seven to eleven years old and their accompanying adults were considered in this study. The research involves both qualitative and quantitative approaches and the use of different methods of investigation, such as face-to-face interviews with children and an adult relative; unobtrusive observation of family group interactions at three exhibits in each gallery; and collection of children's drawings about their favourite exhibit in the galleries. The sample sizes for each investigation varied: 150 families, totaling 300 individuals, were interviewed (150 adults and 150 children); 450 different family groups were observed at the galleries (150 in each gallery); and 120 children's drawings were collected. The guiding principle was to adopt an holistic approach to the situation under investigation, taking into consideration Falk & Dierking's interactive museum experience model (Falk & Dierking, 1992), which considers the personal, social, and physical contexts of a museum visit. Findings from the observations indicated gender effects in adult splitting behaviour from the family group at exhibits according to family members joint-activity compositions, and that differences in exhibit design/tasks affected adult manipulation of hands-on exhibits and the level of proximity between family members. Nine attributes from attractive child-orientated exhibits were drawn from the observed exhibits: element of fun, challenging situation, element of surprise, child-sized exhibit design, imaginative design, opportunity for experiencing things, opportunity for role play, interactive machine/game, and teamwork. The analysis of the children's drawings revealed that drawings can be a valuable source of information about children's interactions with hands-on exhibits and can be used to assess children's understanding of exhibits through the depiction of the exhibit outcomes. The interview data was analysed qualitatively (inductive content analysis) and statistically (chi-squared tests). The analysis of the open-ended interview questions indicated that adult relatives were enthusiastic about the opportunity for the children to interact with exhibits and perceived the hands-on gallery approach as motivating to the child with regard to learning. Children perceived the exhibitions as exciting places and reported positive feelings. A few children mentioned negative feelings, which were related to problematic exhibit design. The majority of children said that they prefer to visit museums in a family context rather than in a school context. The statistical analysis of the closed questions indicated twenty-two significant associations between the adults' and children's interview variables, related to adults' and/or children's age, gender, education, perceptions, behaviour, preferences, visiting habits, and type of museum, supporting the notion that personal, social, and museum aspects affect the child's and adult's museum experience, perceptions and learning. Children's perceptions of their learning in the galleries were found to be affected by the time spent in the gallery, the type of museum, the accompanying relative, and the child's preference for the social context of the museum visit. This investigation provided new insights into the study of galleries designed for children, and has demonstrated that child-orientated exhibitions have features which positively affect the child and family museum experience, that children do perceive that they are learning in this environment, and that it is a effective catalyst for family social activity. Therefore, child-orientated exhibitions are a valuable museum provision for the child and family audiences.