Making the Familiar Strange: Reflections on Fieldwork at a Children’s Museum

By: and Elizabeth Oakley

October 9, 2018

An anthropologist, a 6-year-old, and a 4-year-old walk into a museum. Rather than a punchline to a bizarre joke, this is the scenario that defined my second summer of fieldwork at The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis (TCM). I had visited this museum so often when I was a kid, and I’ve always consider myself the ideal museum visitor. I like to go into every exhibit, read almost every label, figure out what the “big idea” is, and listen to staff programs. But this summer was the first time that I visited the museum with children and my perspective of the “ideal museum visitor” was thrown straight out of the window.

If anything is familiar to me, it’s The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. My family visited the museum frequently while we were growing up, and I worked in the Dinosphere and Treasures of the Earth exhibits when I was completing my masters in bioarchaeology. So when I started conducting research on science communication here in the summer of 2017, it was like “coming home,” in the cheesiest way possible. I still know most of the staff members and I remember how to give a “Tomb Tour” or lead guests during “Become a T-Rex.” This summer I even got my own desk space in the Exhibits hallway.

This attitude of familiarity permeated my data collection methods as well; I channeled my inner gallery facilitator and tried to always remain enthusiastic about education and family learning while I was interviewing guests. This summer, in addition to interviewing staff about the nature of science and its communication in their museum, I also designed a short survey to gauge visitor understanding of the nature of science. To my great frustration, it was difficult to administer, since most parents didn’t want to take time out of their visit to complete an iPad survey while simultaneously trying to keep an eye on curious/bored/wandering/hungry/crying children. With the help of Susan Foutz, Madeline Tatum, and Mary Mauer, who are my colleagues in the evaluation department, and an enlightening visit to the museum with family, I came up with a solution.

My aunt, my parents, three of my cousins, and two of my cousin’s children arrived at the museum around 11:00 am on a Saturday. Saturday’s are almost always busy at the museum, since this is the day many out of town guests come to visit. We had already decided the Dinosphere would be up first, since both kids love dinosaurs. Exciting experiences that used to be “everyday” for me–and that I assumed guests loved–like the sound and light show thunderstorm, the dig site, and the general atmosphere of being surrounded by fossils were almost too much for my young friends. One almost cried during the thunderstorm, both thought the dig site was too hard, and neither were impressed with the Dracorex fossil. The 4-year-old was already asking to go home. After several bathroom breaks and a trip to see the superhero and hot wheels exhibits, we had to break for lunch. Everyone was already tired and I was beginning to wonder how many more exhibits we would get to.

After lunch we went to ScienceWorks, which is the focus of my research project. The goal of the exhibit is to get kids and families engaged in science and STEM careers using entry points that are accessible to midwestern families. Sections of the exhibit highlight farming, river systems, caves and minerals, and meteorology. The 4-year-old was entirely enthralled by the tractor, which simulated grain harvesting, while the 6-year-old pleaded, “I just want to play.” We played “house” in the part of the exhibit that felt the most out of place; a house with an activity about putting together a balanced meal.

The author at her desk in the Exhibits office. Photo by Mary Mauer.

The author and her cousins visit Bucky the T-Rex in Dinosphere. Photo by John Oakley.
The STEM Lab sits empty between programs. It was redesigned in 2016 to be more inviting and natural rather than sterile and white like an academic or industrial laboratory. Although the staff in this lab still wear lab coats, they are navy blue instead of white. Photo by the author.

Needless to say, we might not have learned much about science, but we did get in a lot of play time. Something we were frequently trained in as gallery facilitators was that playing is learning, but it was hard to see these brief bouts of playing as educational experiences in real time. When I asked staff whether they think visitors come to the museum to learn, their responses were mixed as well.

The Curator of Anthropology and Archaeology, who has also spent many hours speaking with guests in the Archaeology Lab window, explained that, for most visitors, their visit to TCM is their first museum experience and they want to spend it enjoying their time rather than learning. The STEM Galleries Coordinator agreed that, because TCM is a children’s museum, it automatically signals comparisons to an amusement park, so staff have to use “hooks and lures” to engage families on both the play and educational levels. The Vice President of Experience Development and Family Learning, on the other hand, described a spectrum of engagement among TCM visitors. Some parents bring their children and say they come to learn, when really they want to have a good time but also feel good about taking their children to a museum. She emphasized that some visitors want to be fully engaged and others do not, but one side of the spectrum of engagement is not better than the other. These staff experiences illustrate that teaching any subject in the museum is tricky business, especially if you don’t acknowledge this spectrum of engagement. You can’t educate every museum visitor, even if you lure them in through play, and that’s okay. If the ideal museum visitor doesn’t exist, that means that an ideal museum visitor who is very enthusiastic about giving feedback in surveys might also be difficult to find.

The magnetic pile sort board in action during a pile sort activity with the museum’s Information Coordinator. Photo by the author.

These insights, the experience of my fellow researchers in the Evaluation department, and the visit with my family helped me develop a more effective survey strategy for ScienceWorks. Instead of heading up to the fourth floor of the museum with just my iPad and some incentive stickers, I also brought a magnetic sort board that I had used previously to collect pile sort data from staff and visitors.

The board looks fun and inviting, with magnets representing many different scientists arranged across the white surface, and “Which scientist is the coolest?” scribbled across the top. Automatically kids saw an opportunity to give their input and parents were less reluctant to say no to answering a few “grown up” questions on the iPad while I talked to their children. We typically talked about which scientists they saw in the exhibit and which scientists they thought were the most interesting, but the board could be adapted to different age levels and different activities as well. Although it wasn’t as fun as driving a tractor or playing house, it still offered an opportunity to play with something tangible and talk about play experiences in the exhibit.

Some survey participants even offered a glimpse of the much-sought-after “playing as learning” phenomenon. A grandmother and several grandkids approached and the grandmother explained hastily that she doubted whether the kids could help me “because all they did was run around the whole time.” On the contrary, the kids told me about how they had practiced skills of a hydrologist at the water table, how they explored a cave, and how they examined different minerals. Their grandmother was floored and said that, as a girl scout troop leader, she was always trying to facilitate learning experiences for her grandchildren, but she always assumed it went in one ear and out the other. In the same way that the ideal museum visitor will always be elusive, the ideal survey participant doesn’t really exist. It’s difficult to gauge what any visitor will get out of a visit, which is why every museum visitor is the ideal museum visitor to engage with in this project, even if it means steering away from traditional methods like only approaching the adult. In this case, seeing the museum in a familiar way as a museum educator was aided by seeing the museum in a strange was as a child who is visiting for the first time.

I would like to extend a special thank you to the Penn Museum and Anthropology Department who funded this research, my parents who housed me during it, my advisor Dr. Schurr for being supportive of the research, Susan Foutz and Jason Greene for facilitating the project from its infancy, Mary Malooley for her encouragement and snack provisions, and Madeline Tatum, Mary Mauer, and Ben Foster for their constant pep talks during the dreaded iPad surveys.

The author is almost eaten by a dinosaur in Dinosphere. This new sculpture was made by paleoartists who incorporated feathers based on new paleontology research. Photo by the author.


Elizabeth Oakley is a third-year PhD student in the Anthropology Program.