Recent research on families and museums, as well as my work at the Oakland Museum of California, confirms that it is the family visit, not the school field trip, that influences whether or not a child will grow up to be a museum-visiting adult. But museums must do more than merely open their doors to families to ensure a positive experience. Museums must provide families with every opportunity to learn together in an environment that is supportive and engaging. One of the best resources a museum has to achieve this goal is a docent.
What Makes a Fun Family Museum Visit?
Before docents can effectively work with family groups, they should have an understanding of how this audience learns and what goals families have in attending a museum. Families see time spent together at a museum, zoo, or other such facility as recreational. This means that these institutions compete with other forms of entertainment, such as sporting activities, shopping malls, movies, etc.
In addition to enjoyment, social interaction is of great importance. Family members want to be with one another and to discuss what they see in the exhibits. Family visitors are most comfortable when the environment allows children to express themselves freely, to be relatively physically unrestrained, does not require strong disciplining on the part of the parent, and is not intimidating to the child or adult.
No Two Families Are Alike
For purposes of this discussion, the only common characteristic shared by a group called a “family'” is that it includes at least one child and one adult. Families today rarely resemble the traditional nuclear family description (two parents and a shared child) of the past. Docents who respect the uniqueness of the families they work with will gain a true advantage.
For instance, one family who toured a photography exhibition was made up of a single mother, a grandmother, a family friend, and two children. The mother helped further the docent’ s communication with her children, the grandmother shared her own memories of the period in history depicted, and the family friend contributed her knowledge of how a camera works. By welcoming the participation of the other adults, the docent created an interesting and personal tour for the children and provided a chance for the adults to be positive role models.
A Constructing the Family Tour
Docents are often unsure who to address when touring families — the adults or the children? The answer is both. On an evaluation of a family program that included a tour, one parent wrote, “Our docent spoke only to the children. I was disappointed because as an adult I am interested in sharing and learning, too.”
Giving a tour that meets the needs and interests of both parents and children is a challenging task. Layering the information is the best technique when working with a family group. Start with the most basic concept and build on it, adding more complicated information gradually. After a docent tour that layered information a parent was noted as saying. “He (my son) was really looking at painting and sculptures. I loved it myself. I never took any art classes so I also benefited by having my attention brought to objects, colors, and textures.” To ensure that most enjoyable tour possible docents should strive to include all family members, both in the tour content and in participation.
Another component to a successful family tour is flexibility. Unlike a school group where children must follow the docent, family visitors have a sense of independence from the group. Docents should not be offended if a family suddenly walks in a different direction while on a tour. As a rule, docents should acknowledge the straying family by explaining that it is acceptable to leave the group, and letting them know where they can catch up should they wish to return to the tour. This prevents parents from having to “police” their child into paying attention, allows children to take immediate delight in what interests them, and lets a docent continue giving a tour to a group that is truly interested and engaged.
One docent who had not yet toured families expressed concern because often when parents accompany school groups as chaperones, their children are the ones most likely to act out. Generally, this is not the case with children visiting in family groups. Children visiting with their families seem to feel more secure and are not tempted to “show off as when in front of school mates.
Catch And Release
The best tactic for working with families is not unlike fishing. Docents can use a “lure” to attract families (a hands-on example, replica, game, or special information). Once they catch the family, they can engage members in discussion and shared discovery. After a brief conversation, the docent can give them a special task to accomplish (i.e. – see how many different kinds of lizards you can find; which paintings have animals in them?) then release them to find the answers. By giving families special tasks to accomplish on their own, docents will be sure to have a group that is interested, participating, and eager to return and share what they have learned.
Not unlike other groups of learners, families learn best when they are actively engaged and are able to use all of their senses. Depending on the collections and exhibits, some museums will lend themselves to this more easily than others. When tour content is age/group appropriate and touring aides are used, even a “hands-off’ exhibit can be exciting and memorable for families.
Any exhibit can be made more interesting for families. For instance, at the Oakland Museum we decided to create a family program in conjunction with our special exhibit. The Arts and Crafts Movement in California: Living the Good Life, which consisted of decorative arts and furniture. Rather than focus conceptually on the big idea of the exhibit — “the Arts and Craft style in California” — we choose to work with the simple theme of “pattern.” Touring aides and activities were developed, such as postcards of ceramic tiles with patterns that could be matched to the originals in the exhibit; ceramic tiles with patterns that children could experiment with by rotating, and miniature model rooms that children could decorate using magazine cut-outs of Arts and Crafts furniture and decorative pieces.
By choosing a simple theme, including several tactile experiences, and providing opportunities for sharing, this program turned out to be one of our most successful ever. Families left the exhibit deeply satisfied by what they had learned, entertained by the experiences they had. and delighted to have been formally exposed to the Arts and Crafts style, which is a style that exists in many of their homes and neighborhoods. In addition, families were now equipped with a new awareness of pattern that they could apply to other art exhibits, to different environments, and to life in general.
Another example of a successful family program was one developed in conjunction with our special exhibition. Seeing Straight: the f.64 Revolution in Photography. This exhibition consisted mostly of still life, black-and-white photographs and proved to be a wonderful opportunity to introduce photography to both young visitors and their parents.
Again, rather than focus on the overall historical or conceptual message of the exhibit, docents chose the rather simple topic of “framing” for their tour theme. They used touring aides such as flashlights to help show the effects of light and shadow, empty slide frames to help families frame their own views and compositions, and three post cards each with different views of the Golden Gate Bridge to show perspective. Children and adults actively participated in this tour and when finished had a new or greater understanding of the choices photographers make beyond just pushing a button.
The Oakland Museum has art, history, and science galleries. The two examples I have given were both from our art exhibits, which are often most challenging for families. History and science exhibitions are somewhat easier to tour with families. Families enjoy learning about things that are relevant to their own lives, so what seems to work best with history exhibitions is when parallels are drawn between how we live, eat, work, and play compared to a family of the past. Docents touring science exhibits have the advantage of being able to enhance their tours with experiments and hands-on objects from nature. These touring aides make learning more enjoyable, especially when they reveal how a chosen theme relates to our everyday lives.
Though museums must compete with other popular forms of entertainment, they continue to have a special draw that few other weekend attractions can offer: they provide Conducting “hands-on ” activities offers families the opportunity to share common learning experiences. Photo: Hannah Klein children and adults with opportunities to see something new or special, and to learn about it together. Docents are the icing on the museum cake. They can help families take their museum experience one step farther and provide families with new ideas of how to learn from exhibits. When docents encourage active participation by all family members, provide a sensory or hands-on component, and allow families time for independent discoveries and interaction, docents will have a tour that is sure to inspire young museum visitors to become museum visitors for life.
Christie Davis is the Family Programs Coordinator and School Programs Coordinator for Art at the Oakland Museum of California. She received her M.A. in Museum Education from John F. Kennedy University. Her projects at the museum include working with staff to develop family programs for art. ecology and history, coordinating the museum ‘s well established school programs for art, and working with community groups to create relevant cultured programs.
Davis, Christie. “Family Matters: Touring the Family Audience,” The Docent Educator 4.4 (Summer 1995): 14-15.