Researching the experience of children under 5 in museums – Part 1

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For the past year, the Humber Museums Partnership under 5s team have been collaborating with Abigail Hackett and Lisa Proctor from Sheffield University on a project to discover how young children experience museum space.

We were about to embark on a project to improve our provision for under 5s and wanted a framework for undertaking observations of children in museums that was informed by theory and best practice. Our learning officers would be undertaking visits to museums across the country to assess different spaces with the intension of gathering an understanding of best practice. What would they aim to look for? How would they organise and make sense of what they saw? We also wanted to produce a resource that could be used by other museum professionals to further understandings of how children use museums.

Abi and Lisa worked with us to develop the APSE framework, a practical resource to assist our Learning Officers on their visits. On her blog Abi wrote: “The APSE resource draws on interdisciplinary theories of space / place as being experienced both in the abstract and embodied, in the physical and the social. These categories of experiencing space act as a heuristic to help us think about different ways in which museum spaces aimed at under-fives could be understood or analysed.” You can read Abi’s blog post here.

The resource draws on two different constructs of space / place common in the literature; space as either physical or social, and space as either abstract or embodied. The resources is divided into four different ways of thinking about space:

  1. Abstract physical
  2. Embodied physical
  3. Abstract social
  4. Embodied social

You can download a copy of the APSE resource here.

Learning Officers: Esther Hallberg (Hull), Christine Rostron (East Riding) and Rosalind Macaulay (North Lincolnshire) took the resource on visits to over 20 different museums across the north of England. They found it useful for interrogating different aspects of the museum experience for children. It was often most useful to focus on one section of the resource, as this allowed for deeper thinking and closer observation. Visiting in pairs meant that the different sections of the resource could be divided between the Learning Officers, then shared after the visit.

The resource often prompted LOs to consider questions they might otherwise have forgotten. For example, in the section on ‘Abstract Physical’ there is a question about noise levels and whether sound is used purposefully. Noise levels seemed particularly significant in observations of country houses, and were not something that might otherwise have been considered. In one country house that was very quiet, children were ‘shushed’ by their parents, as there seemed to be a pressure to maintain a sense of quiet for other visitors. In other spaces where there was a purposeful use of noise, children appeared to have more freedom to make sounds as they liked.

One limitation in using the resource on our visits was that sometimes there were very few families with young children to observe. Without orchestrating families to observe, we relied on choosing times to visit places when we thought we might encounter families with young children. On some occasions, with no families to observe, we had to look at the spaces alone and consider the abstract physical and abstract social factors only.

After collecting notes from their visits, Learning Officers met with Abi and Lisa to analyse and draw out key themes in their observations. To find out more about how we undertook this analysis you can read Abi and Lisa’s blog post: Findings from the APSE toolkit.

Dr Rebecca Kummerfeld, Learning Manager

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