Researching Children Under 5 in Museums – Part 2: Touch

For the past year, the Humber Museums Partnership under 5s team have been collaborating with Abi Hackett and Lisa Proctor from Sheffield University on a project to discover how young children experience museum space. For an introduction to this project check out Part 1.

By analysing the common themes from our observations we identified four key areas for enhancing the experience of families with young children in museums:

  • Touch
  • Movement
  • Dwelling
  • Immersion vs activity in exhibition spaces

In the next 4 blog posts I will outline some of the observations we have made around each of these themes and how these have informed our practice and programming.


Scun Museum-3011

The importance of touch emerged as a theme in almost every observation. Sometimes touch can be problematic in museums, as some things can be touched, and others cannot. In many visits, Learning Officers asked: How do we convey what can and can’t be touched?

In one museum we visited everything you can reach, you can touch.  Anything that shouldn’t be touched was either behind glass, far behind barriers or up high out of reach. Things that could be touched were laid out, within reach. This is a model we are working towards now at North Lincolnshire Museum. Objects that should not be touched are in cases behind glass, or behind barriers.  In our Iron Stone Cottage, we have replica and period objects from our handling collection, arranged as they might have been when the cottage was used in the nineteenth century. They are out and can be touched. We find families still need a little encouragement to handle these objects. Signs with prompting questions: ‘can you pour a cup of tea?’ and marketing images of children playing in the cottage have helped families feel confident exploring and touching this part of the museum. Since putting in these signs we have observed many more families playing in this part of the museum.

One country house we visited used a teddy-bear symbol to show that certain objects could be touched. Once families were initiated into understanding this code, it was a clear way to delineate what could be touched. This worked well in the context of a country house, where objects that both can and can’t be touched may be set within reach. For example, in a period room, some items may be replica objects that can be explored, and others may be collections than cannot. A graphic symbol was an effective tool to invite families to explore where appropriate. It is a system that has now been brought in at Sewerby Hall.

The teddy symbols pointed families to ‘cabinets of curiosity’ with drawers of handling objects, books and resources to help children explore and experience the rooms. These also contained a basket at floor level with resources and objects for under 5s. As simple as it sounds, making sure under 5s can reach the things you are providing for them is key.

On some visits, we noticed that the idea of touch was more complicated than putting hands on objects, prompting us to consider: How do we think in a more in depth way about the nature and experience of touch?

In one museum we observed children touching the glass cases in which objects are housed and saying ‘Touched it! Touched it!’. Another child was lifted up to a higher case with a porcupine inside. She tentatively touched her finger towards it, looked closely, then touched the glass with her finger and excitedly proclaimed ‘a spikey one… I touch it!’. Sometimes visual access is enough.

In applying knowledge gathered through these observations, we have developed explorer packs that allow children to explore this expanded notion of touch. Resources offer ways of engaging without touch, but encourage further exploration of objects and spaces. Props such as magnifying glasses have been a useful tool for bridging the gap between touch and sight. A teddy has cards that prompt children to ‘find teddy a place to wash; a place to sleep; a place to eat’, offering an invitation to add or chance the way they see displays.


Another way we have explored the idea of touch in our own museums is through a small world play area at the Treasure House in Beverley. A felt mat was made to look like the seashore and placed beside an exhibition about the seaside, with large seaside scenes. Baskets with seaside small world play encourage children to explore the idea of playing at the seaside, and gain a tangible experience of the images that make up the exhibition.

Dr Rebecca Kummerfeld, Learning Manager


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