That there is a national emphasis on the value of early childhood education goes without saying. So it makes good sense that museums are starting to think more about how they serve this audience. At the Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center, our students generally visit museums 3-5 times a week; it’s a space in which they are comfortable and familiar. So when staff at the National Museum of American History wanted to understand more about how young children interact with exhibits, they thought of SEEC. Through a series of discussions, the staff agreed upon using Little Golden Books, an exhibit with obvious kid-appeal, to examine how children felt about their exhibit design. Similarly, SEEC wanted to see the exhibit through the eyes of their students in order to inform our own teaching practices and professional development. Finally, we decided to experiment with SEEC’s Kindergarten class because, at the end of the year, they will be asked to create their very own exhibitions. The experience seemed like a great way to support their endeavor.
We planned two visits to the exhibit. The first visit was simply to familiarize the students with the content and the layout of the space. Prior to going to the museum, Sara Cardello, Museum Educator, planned an interactive, hands-on lesson in which the students identified parts of the exhibit; i.e. object, case, label etc. and introduced them to Golden Books. Almost all of them immediately recognized the Golden Books and were anxious to share their personal stories with the class.
We headed over to the exhibit and first, met with the exhibit designer. We then took turns walking through the exhibit in small groups, each with either a classroom or museum educator. During that time, the children got to look and ask questions. Educators came prepared with specific questions to encourage them to think about the exhibit. Below are some of the questions and some of their answers.
What do you see, notice, or what is the exhibit showing you?
- Really old books
- TV screen helps us read the books
- Some of the books have interesting ideas
- Each display case has a theme: doctor, transportation, mining, cooking
- Measurements along the sides of the larger illustrations
- Really old (again)
- Some are dusty
- Some are new
- Golden strip
What do you hear?
- Wanted to hear the stories
- Kind of loud because we are all in here
- No music
- Too loud
- Conversations about all of our observations
What are you learning, thinking about, what would you add?
- Who is in the picture with Mickey and Donald?
- Beautiful, looks painted
- I see some letters, and I see the same letters, but different pictures (referring to Little Golden Books)
- I would add a kids book, like Toy Story 3, even though these are kids books
- I would add toys that you see in the books to play with
Who is the exhibit for, who would like this exhibit?
- Me and my mom would like this, she read these books
- My grandma likes to read
- Grandma and grandpa would like them because they haven’t seen them in years
- Bullies would not like it because they do not like books
- Giants would be too big and they like to break stuff
In addition to these questions, we had some open-ended discussions based on their responses to the objects. Here is an example of one such discussion.
When looking at the case displaying the Here Comes the Parade the students quickly identified Donald Duck and Mickey, but were stumped when it came to Howdy Doody. This was a great time for us to look at the label and see if we could get some more information. Although the name didn’t ring a bell, it did give us a chance to talk about when the book was made and how our parents or grandparents might know about this character. I asked this group if they could tell me where they thought the characters were and after some investigation, they concluded it was a parade. This line of inquiry prompted me to share my own experiences watching the parade on Thanksgiving morning. This encouraged others to share their own Thanksgiving traditions and/or recollections of parades. It was a great conversation and before we knew it, we had been standing at that case for close to 10 minutes, which is considerable for a Kindergartner.
Following the visit to the exhibit, we had a chance to debrief as a whole group (there are 18 students in the class). Below is a glimpse of that discussion.
What did you notice?
- A new book, Little Red Hen
- An interesting book about cars
- A girl cleaning up
- Boy and girl playing doctor
- I noticed #65 on one of the books
Who would like this exhibit?
- Grandma and grandpa would like it because they haven’t seen them in years
- Grandma and grandpa would like the books because they would remember them
- Moms and dads like books, they would like to visit
How did you feel about the exhibit?
- Really like it because they are lots of interesting books to see
- Cool. Cool books, cool answers, moms and dads would like it too
- I felt surprised when I saw the spine but then I realized that’s why it’s called Golden Books
What would you add or change?
- More books!
- Add books that you might know
- You could bring your own Golden Books once you were done with them
- Add a book or a chair to look at books
- I love Golden Books
- I would add airplanes, they are more interesting
- I would add my own books
What questions do you have for the curator or designer?
- Why did you choose Golden Books?
- Why do they make Golden Books?
- Dinosaurs are big and you have to think about cases and storage, you have to think about the size of objects for exhibits
How much did it cost to build this exhibit?
- $100 because books can break easily
- $60 because book are expensive
- $15 because it is a really big exhibit