Summary of our Children in Museums event, May 23rd in Manchester

Thanks so much to everyone who came to ‘Space, materials, the body: researching young children’s experiences in museums’ event the other week in Manchester. The event focussed on how research and practice can better account for the bodily, sensory, tacit and experiential aspects of young children’s museum visiting.

A summary of the event is available here:

In coming weeks we will publish a series of blog posts with further information and resources related to the event.

In the meantime, here is some of the feedback from participants at the event.

“I enjoyed the speakers focus, very interesting and presenting new ideas. I appreciated the opportunity to deeply discuss the theory and different theoretical perspectives of young children and museums – debating and discussing this with a broad range of people is very useful in expanding ideas.”

“I’m going to reframe some of our activities to be more about teamwork and sharing and less about final outcome.”

“Doing practical workshops alongside theory – something that is usually lacking in conferences about creative learning.”



Space, materials and the body: Looking forward to our event on 23rd May

On 23rd May, we are hosting an event called ‘Space, materials and the body’, bringing researchers and museum practitioners together to think about young children’s experiences in museums.

The day will be a mix of keynote presentations and hands on sessions. We have two keynote presentations, reporting on work with young children in museums in Wales and in northern England. Here are the abstracts:

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

Professor Bella Dicks, Head of Research, Amgueddfa-Cymru – National Museum of Wales, Professor of Sociology, Cardiff university

This talk will discuss 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 its focus, I discuss 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, my own 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. The talk therefore questions models of learning-through-doing, and suggests that more socially and materially-focused understandings of children’s interactions in museums are needed.


Vibrancy, repetition, movement: reconceptualising young children in museums

Abi Hackett, Christina MacRae, Lisa Procter, Manchester Metropolitan University

When observing what young children do in museums, sometimes predictable, sometimes completely surprising, researchers and museum practitioners find themselves asking different versions of the same question: what does that mean? Or, to phrase this question in some other ways; what does this behaviour signify? What are these children learning? How successful is this exhibition for this audience? What is the value of children visiting museums? In this presentation, we make a case for an expanded field of inquiry, drawing on new theories of learning to better conceptualise young children in museums. In particular, from posthumanist theory, we take two notions; firstly a decentring of humans in order to understand the role of non-human actants in what happens in museums, and secondly an interest in non-representation, that is, aspects of experience which are difficult to rationalise or to put into words. Applying this thinking to examples of research projects we have working on over the last ten years, we offer some new ways for thinking about vibrancy, repetition and movement in young children’s museum visiting.


The hands on parallel sessions will be all about exploring in a practical way HOW we might investigate or understand young children’s experiences in museums, as researchers and practitioners. These will include:

  • Sound walking
  • Touch and making sculpture
  • Child-led pedagogic practice with arts materials
  • Drawing as inquiry
  • Photo elicitation
  • Working with visual data to think about the non human world.

We are really looking forward to sharing and discussing with participants on 23rd May!

A few places for the event remain, which you can book here:


Researching how families with under 5s experience North Lincs Museum

North Lincs Learning

This Autumn we have been working with researcher Abigail Hackett from Manchester Metropolitan University to explore how families with young children aged 5 and under use and experience the museum.  We hope that this will help us to identify the strengths of our museum for young families and to understand how we can cater for them even better in the future.

We arranged for a group of local families to come to the museum for a visit once a week for four weeks. We worked in partnership with NLC Adult Community Learning to recruit families.  Sarah Johnson, Family Learning Development Assistant attended visits and assisted in their smooth delivery. We were also very grateful for the support from Rae Twidale at Westcliff Drop- in who helped to recruit families and provided free transport.

Over the course of the four visits Abigail observed what the families did at the museum.  She…

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Young children in museums: a reading list

Here is some of the literature we have been reading about young children in museums:


Carr, M. Clarkin-Phillips, J. Beer, A. Thomas, R. and Waitai, M. (2012) Young children developing meaning-making practices in a museum: the role of boundary objects, Museum Management and Curatorship, 27:1, 53-66

Cape UK (2011) In the Gallery: Children, young people and families co-researching their experience in museums, MLA.

Clarkin-Philips, J. Carr, M. Thomas, R. Waitai, M. and Lowe, J. (2013) Stay Behind the Yellow Line: Young Children Constructing Knowledge from an Art Exhibition. Curator: The Museum Journal 56 (4): 407-420.

Continue reading “Young children in museums: a reading list”

Under fives at Humber Museums

dr abigail hackett

For the last year, Lisa Procter and I have been collaborating with Humber Museums Partnership to think about how research and practice can inform each other, and help us think about the meaning of museums for young children.

I have written previously about the APSE resource we developed for Humber Museums, which is a tool using spatial theory to inform considerations of how children experience museums spaces. You can read more about this project here and here, and excitingly, you can now download the APSE resource itself, here.

Last week, I spent a day at North Lincolnshire Museum, reflecting with staff on the ways our work so far had informed their practice. It was really exciting to see tangible outcomes of the project so far, such as a new dedicated space for under fives in the museum (packed out with families the day I visited, despite the bright sunshine outside). Some other favourite ideas coming…

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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.