Museum spaces for children: organization and use of the exhibition environment 2014

Ph.D Candidate: 
Despoina Kalesopoulou
Supervising Committee: 
Domna Kakana Alexandra Bounia

This study  explored the phenomenon of the development of child-centered museums and to offer a deeper understanding of their organization and use, the ways in which children interact with the exhibition environment and the kind of experience they gain from their visit, by implementing the ecological-embodied epistemological paradigm. The empirical research consisted of two phases. During the preliminary phase museums that employ child-centered exhibition techniques in Greece were mapped, by using a questionnaire for those museums that have special spaces or child-centered arrangements within their main exhibition areas (a total of 199 museums responded), as well as by conducting site visits, interviews and bibliographical/web research for the child-centered museums that operate as autonomous entities. The main phase of the research was carried out in two Greek museums that were chosen as typical case-studies of child-centered museum environments: the Hellenic Children’s Museum, as an example of an autonomous child-centered organization, and the children’s wing of the Natural History Museum of Crete, as an example of a space specially designed for children within a general public museum. The research involved a total of 60 children 4-12 years old and 60 parents (30 children and their parents in each museum), plus 14 professionals of these two institutes.An innovative methodological approach was applied, based on the ecological theories of James Gibson’s affordances, Roger Barker’s behavior settings and Urie Bronfenbrenner’s nested systems, which enabled the examination of the phenomenon from the micro-systemic to the macro-systemic level. In regard to the case-studies, a variety of methods for the collection and analysis of the empirical data was utilized, such as observation, interviews and photography by the children themselves. These methods facilitated the elicitation of the museum’s perspective in relation to the rationale of its development, organization and function (promoted use of the exhibition environment), as well as the children’s perspective regarding the qualities of the exhibition environment that are personally meaningful to them (actual and preferred use). Findings showed that, despite the positive climate, there is little diffusion of child-centered techniques in the country’s museums and there is a need for better understanding of the characteristics of child-centered design. In this context, the thesis provides a useful body of information. The psycho-pedagogical qualities that emerged as important for children from all the methodological tools employed in the case-studies were organized around seven axes: embodied approach, symbolic and pragmatic qualities of objects, scaffolding to strengthen the interpretative skills, play, epistemic approach and social interaction. These axes correspond with several dimensions of the sense of place that children were found to derive from child-centered museums. Finally, the tripartite taxonomy of affordances, developed specifically for the museum environment, points to the structural and functional elements that are important to be enhanced, so that the effectivities of the visitor are supported by the exhibition environment.