Taking seriously what happens in the moment: rethinking the role of museums in the lives of young children Dr Abigail Hackett

The grand room is dominated by a huge dining table. The dining table is laid with a full dinner service, covered with a glass dome so people cannot actually touch it. There are big windows, fireplace and portraits in this room. In the dining room, Izzy and Anna ran round and round the dining room table – faster and faster they ran in circles, giggling and maintaining eye contact with each other. They were getting a little manic and I tried to calm them down.

Hackett, 2012, p.7

In this post I want to think about the role of museums in children’s lives and learning. In particular, how is museum learning similar to and different from learning in school, or in any other sort of place?

In my ethnographic research, family visits to museums with toddlers were dominated by movement, which I have argued “must not be dismissed as the ‘noise’ that happens in between focussed learning and engagement in a museum (or any other environment) but as a central aspect” (Hackett, 2014, p.20). Practices such as banging a drum or pressing a button to play music and dancing around the gallery seemed important to the children, and uniquely inspired by the spaces and objects in the museum, yet difficult to categorise as ‘learning’ in a traditional sense.

Other scholars who have looked at the experiences of young children visiting museums have come to similar conclusions. For example, Weier and Piscetelli (2003) have described young children’s museum visiting as “hot and sweaty learning”, Dicks has written about the social and sensory nature of children visiting a science centre, and Kirk (2014) emphasised the fast embodied way with which children navigated around a museum.

Rethinking museum learning

So are we to conclude that children of this age are simply too young to visit a museum ‘properly’ or to learn anything meaningful from the experience? Rather, I would argue that such observations should encourage us to think differently about what museum learning does or could look like, and to rethink the role of museums in children’s learning.

Airey (1980) charts the development of museum education since the 1960s, highlighting its original focus on partnership working with schools and Local Education Authorities. Early museum educators prioritised encouraging schools to visit museums, loaning objects to schools, and children’s close observation of museum objects to facilitate learning about, for example, history and science. Overall museum education was positioned in a supporting role to school learning, and the purpose of children’s museum visits was projected into their future adult lives; both in terms of the history and science knowledge they needed to acquire and in terms of children appreciating the importance of museums and museum objects.

I have found Rautio’s (2014) writing about children’s intra-action with objects helpful for thinking about alternative ways of conceptualising the potential role of museums in children’s lives. Rautio writes about the need to take seriously what children do, even if it seems pointless or defies adult explanation. In particular, Rautio urges us to take seriously what happens in the moment. She contrasts this focus on the moment with traditional “educational research which tends to overlook the momentary in favour of learning for the future.” (ibid, p.4). So, in the vignette with which I began this post, we would need to take seriously the running around the table, even though it might seem unproductive, disruptive and not a good example of purposeful learning. (Obviously the caveat here is that museums must prioritise the safety of both their collections and other visitors – running round a table is not always safe or appropriate!)

Some new directions for thinking about the purpose of young children in museums

Taking seriously what happens in moments like running round a table or dancing in a gallery, leads me to ask, rather than seeing museums in a supporting role to school learning (or in the case of younger children, school readiness), could they offer something completely different?

The space of a museum is unlike anything else young children are likely to experience. It is bigger than a house. It is indoors and public, yet often seen by families as safer than other large spaces (a shopping centre for example), perhaps allowing children more scope to explore independently. Young children discover such spaces by moving through them, encountering colours, textures, objects, dark enclosed spaces or bright expansive spaces. Perhaps this experience of space itself could be a starting point for thinking about the role of museums in children’s lives, and the potential for a different kind of learning experience?

Additionally, much of what young children experience in museums seems to exist in between fantasy and real life. Taxidermy is a good example of this. I suspect am I not the only one with very clear childhood memories of standing in front of large stuffed animals, holding my breath and waiting to see whether they were going to move! Both the spaces and things in museums can offer children the chance to play and interact in ways that are distinct from anywhere else, exploring notions of fear and reality.

As research on museum education increasingly draws attention to the sensory nature of museum visiting, and the physical, wellbeing and emotional benefits of these sensory experiences, it is an exciting time for thinking about the role museums do or could play in young children’s embodied, playful exploration of their worlds.

Abigail Hackett is a Research Fellow at Manchester Metropolitan University.


Airey, V. (1980) History of Museum Education in the United Kingdom. The Past Twenty Years. Journal of Education in Museums, 1, 10-15.

Dicks, B. (2013) Interacting with….what? Exploring children’s social and sensory practices in a science discovery centre, Ethnography and Education 9 (3), 301-322.

Hackett, A. (2012) Running and learning in the museum: a study of young children’s behaviour in the museum, and their parents’ discursive positioning of that behaviour. Childhoods Today, 6 (1).

Hackett, A. (2014) Zigging and zooming all over the place: young children’s meaning making and movement in the museum. Journal of Early Childhood Literacy, 14 (1), 5-27.

Kirk, E. (2014) Crystal Teeth and Skeleton Eggs: Snapshots of Young Children’s Experiences in a Natural History Museum. Unpublished thesis.

Rautio, P. (2014) Mingling and imitating in producing spaces for knowing and being: Insights from a Finnish study of child matter intra-action, Childhood 21 (4), 461-474.

Weier, K. and Piscitelli, B., (2003) Hot and sweaty in the museum: Young children learning about nature, culture and science. Journal for Education in Museums, 24, 19–23.

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