The social and sensory materiality of museum spaces: tensions between learning and play

Professor Bella Dicks is Head of Research at Amgueddfa-Cymru – National Museum of Wales, and a Professor of Sociology at Cardiff University. She presented a keynote paper at our recent Children in Museums event, drawing on some of the data collected from her long term research with museums in Wales. The talk questioned models of learning-through-doing, and suggested that more socially and materially-focused understandings of children’s interactions in museums are needed.

Professor Dicks discussed the challenges of reconciling what children actually do in museums with expectations of learning-through-doing. Taking the model of the science discovery centre as a focus, Bella discussed how exhibit design is often in tension with children’s highly social and sensory interactions – with material objects, technologies and each other. Design envisages the transmission of rational scientific principles, obtainable through simple activation of exhibit effects, or ‘by stealth’ or ‘ambush’ whilst children are unaware they are learning. However, ‘discovery’ spaces work to bring other dimensions to the fore. Far from the picture of harmonious, focused and rational play that appears to be the expectation of interactive exhibit design, Bella’s research suggests that children are busy enacting conflictual, sensory, gendered and ever-shifting peer-relations in their interactions with exhibits. By actively using and responding to the material resources of the environment, they are enacting these social relationships, rather than bringing science to the fore.

You can read more about Bella’s research on this project in this paper:

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.

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