#MuseumWalkabout Summer 2017 (Post 3)

Third post recounting my adventures during #MuseumWalkabout Summer 2017, during which I attempted to hit as many museums as I could in a single day, and to fill all interstitial time with museum-related stuff. Post 1 can be found here, and Post 2 can be found here. I’d recommend starting from the beginning.

Having noted the ads for the Tea Party Museum and Ships, I thought for a moment about checking it out. It had been on my original “maybe” list for the day.


But because part of the museum experience is outdoors, and the rain hadn’t let up, I decided not to. I did snap the above pic, and noted an awesome piece of programming that I’d love to check out some time:



Every museum is desperately chasing the Millennials. This might be a bit much for some millennials– my millennial wife said she wouldn’t go if I paid her– but to me, it combines so many great attractors. Food and booze– things people are already going out and paying for anyway. Dancing and singing. A little history lesson. And millennials keep telling museums– both with their attendance and with how they respond to visitor surveys– that activities that you can do with a couple friends are very important to them as an age cohort.

With the right (slightly nerdy, adventurous about food, enjoy a drink) friends, this would be amazing.


So, I went on to the Boston Children’s Museum.

I’d seen the Hood Milk bottle before, and heard a lot of positive things about the museum from people, but I’d never been before, not having children, and preferring to go to parks and restaurants when visiting my friends who do.

That said, it was an amazing experience. Bright, colorful, lots of different types of activities and exhibits… I saw a girl do a back handspring in one exhibit, seemingly just because she had the space. The Children’s Museum engaged kids at all sorts of levels, inviting the most un-museum-like anarchy… and everyone seemed to be having a blast, kids and parents alike.

And it was loud. Woo boy, was it loud.

There’s a certain developmental period during which many children, when really enjoying themselves, just run around screaming. This developmental stage was well-represented.

I was really struck by how much fun the adults who let themselves engage with the exhibits and interactives were having. While the learning outcomes are designed for young people, the actions that help us learn that mastery of the world (whether splashing water, building with blocks, or learning about basic science), never fully lose their FUN.

I sat on the floor in a room full of blocks, building a tower myself, and watched the parents who were aiding their children, or even just working beside them– their faces looked engaged. They were having a grand old time. Then I watched the parents sitting on the benches along the wall– they weren’t engaged. They weren’t having fun. This was something their kids enjoyed, and they… they sort of sat, and watched, and looked tired.

After some participant-observer time, I eventually got sucked completely into participant mode. The tower I built was wicked tall, yo.

My masterpiece of block engineering isn’t in the picture, but these are the blocks in question:

Because I was livetweeting my observations throughout the day, I would occasionally get feedback from people that shaped my thinking over the course of my walkabout. Around this point, my old friend and former roommate Brendan, who now works for the Association of Children’s Museums, made a very apt observation:

There was something that the Boston Children’s Museum did very well that you seldom see at adult- or even family-centric museums, that I really enjoyed and appreciated: they not only designed exhibits with specific learning outcomes in mind– many if not all museums do that– but they actually center those learning outcomes, literally rendering them visible on the wall:

This was my biggest takeaway from the Children’s Museum. They were very deliberate about the learning outcomes of each exhibit. Which makes sense– people take their kids to children’s museums because they offer a fun opportunity for learning. It always has to be more overt than, say, a playground or park. Because those are free and hyperlocal. To get parents to come with children across town, and plunk down money… they need to be doing more than just playing.

But the thing is, children are never “just playing.” Ludic learning is always inherently a part of play for kids. (And for adults, too, if you can just get them to get over themselves and play.)  The service that the Children’s Museum offers is twofold: a safe, fun place for children to play, explore, and learn, but even more importantly, a place for parents to learn about their kid, to have the process of their child’s learning highlighted and explicated for them. The second part is the real value.

But in doing that, they’re doing something really interesting: they’re putting visitor experience itself on display. Imagine other museums doing that. An exhibit that reflects your experience as a museum-goer back to you, in a way… Points you toward thinking about how you interact with an exhibit and what that can tell you about you.

Museum-going, even for us grown-ups, is never only about learning about the outside world. It seems to me that highlighting that– giving visitors a guide for how to learn about themselves and their friends from an exhibit… That’s a good model for proving the value of your museum to the visitor.

After all, the Children’s Museum is, for the children who visit it, basically a giant, amazing playground. The parents pay to have their child’s play framed for them.

Next up: Final post in the series. The ICA and MuseumHive!!!

#MuseumWalkabout First Post

#MuseumWalkabout Second Post

#MuseumWalkabout Third Post

#MuseumWalkabout Fourth Post

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