- Connecting Kids to History with Museum Exhibitions
Connecting Kids to History with Museum Exhibitions, edited by D. Lynn McRainey and John Russick, should mark an important shift in how scholars and historians from a variety of fields think about children's interaction with historical subjects in museum settings. Although written with museum professionals in mind, the thirteen chapters that comprise the book will be of interest to anyone who works with children or studies how they learn and experience history. From the chapters on educational theory that begin the book, through the middle section which explores the role of play, story, and imagination, to the final segment which offers realistic and practical advice on everything from exhibition design to label-writing, each of the writers keeps kids at the center of his or her argument. Children are not an afterthought here, nor a passive audience, nor are the ideas about how to reach them add-ons or footnotes, rather children are viewed as partners and collaborators in making meaning in museum settings. Several authors make convincing arguments that children must be involved in museums and exhibitions from the earliest planning stages, regardless of whether the exhibition is one that is traditionally thought of as children's fare. They argue that museums are unique sites which offer important opportunities for multi-generational learning.
The book is divided into three main sections: part one, "Valuing Kids;" part two, "Connecting Kids to History;" and part three, "Creating History Exhibitions for Kids." The first section is the most traditionally academic and, unfortunately, at times, the most dry. The first chapter, "Never Too Young to Connect to History: Cognitive Development and Learning" by Sharon Shaffer, does, however, offer the reader a good grounding in both theories of childhood development and educational theory as they relate broadly to how typical kids learn and, more specifically, the many ways kids can learn history. She briefly [End Page 176] summarizes the theories of Dewey, Vygotsky, Piaget, and Gardner, all influential thinkers in terms of educational theory and the importance of experiential learning. Of this group, Howard Gardner stands out, as his theories support celebrating diverse learning styles. Shaffer writes, "With the introduction of Gardner's theories, museum learning gained validity as a means of constructing knowledge through nontraditional experiences. Museum environments broadened the context for informal learning . . ." (p. 39). This assertion, in many ways, addresses the core idea of the book—the unique learning experiences which museums can and should offer to children are too important to overlook.
In "Collaborating With Kids," the third chapter in the book, Anne Grimes Rand and Robert Kiihne argue that the only way to design exhibitions that will truly engage kids is to bring them into the exhibition planning process from the very beginning. As they point out, "kids are experts at being kids." They describe the attempts of the staff at the Henry Ford Museum to figure out what objects kids would find interesting. As flash cards of furniture were shown to a group of children, a chair made of horns sparked their interest, and the children wondered if "steers were killed specifically to make the chair," which, in terms of material culture, is a valid question, but not one that museum educators might put at the top of the list. The authors go on to write, "Such queries provide museum staff with entry points for engaging kids with objects . . ." (p. 80). At several points throughout the book, various authors make the argument that it is both difficult and unnecessary for adults to try to imagine and/or predict what children will think. Rather, children should be involved in the planning and evaluation of exhibits and simply be asked for their input and opinions.
It is in the second and third sections of the book, however, that the chapters depart from the theoretical and delve more fully into real-life examples of exhibitions in museums which have successfully incorporated children's learning styles, abilities, and input in the planning...