American Family

Topic: Art Subtopic: General

Case Study

of an Exhibition

by Margaret Middleton

Published on December 27, 2012

  • Description and goals

    This Case Study was written by Lisa Ellsworth and Margaret Middleton.

    Inspired by San Jose Pride, a celebration of the local LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning) community, we wanted to present an art exhibition that welcomes all families to Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose. We chose to present works selected from Courteney Coolidge’s American Families: Beyond the White Picket Fence, 100 photographs capturing the daily lives of ten diverse families reflecting our country’s cultural landscape. Curator Lisa Ellsworth selected seven photographs that together offer a window into the life of a Bay Area family with two moms and two kids, accompanied by interpretive text inviting visitors to reflect on what family means to them.

  • Development process and challenges

    Interpreting art in a children’s museum setting presents a unique challenge. Because we do not have docents in this space, we built support for grown-ups into the design of the exhibition. The introductory text provides context for understanding the artist and her work, helping grown-ups to frame their conversations with children. For this exhibition, we also developed prompts specific to each photograph, asking visitors to contemplate their own family lives. Questions frame each photograph:

    How does your family spend time together? What does your family value?
    What are your favorite family traditions?
    How does your family begin the day? How does your family end the day?
    What have you learned from your family? What have you taught your family?


    To welcome children into the space, we presented the artwork at a comfortable viewing height and included a talk-back station featuring child-size chairs. Prompts on the wall above ask visitors to tell us about their families:

    What does family mean to you?
    How has your family changed over time?
    What makes your family special?


    Children can use colored pencils and paper to draw or write a response. They can display their response to share with other visitors. To extend the gallery experience beyond the exhibition space, we included prompts in surprising places like the bathroom, next to a bench, and inside the elevator:

    How long have you been waiting for your family?
    Who in your family needs a rest?
    Who in your family gets to push the button?
    Who in your family saw this first?


    One of the biggest challenges was the gallery itself. It’s actually a hallway that extends around a corner, framed by bathrooms on one side and a defibrillator unit on the other, with an emergency exit and an office entrance in between. We made the most of it. We placed the larger format photographs in strategic sight lines to draw attention from both ends of the hall and placed the table and chairs to invite visitors to linger.

    We were really excited about the exhibition, but because the museum had never presented anything like this before, it was clear to us that we needed to make the case for the value of an exhibition highlighting LGBTQ family life. Audience development initiatives at Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose currently focus on Latino and Vietnamese communities, as well as families affected by autism, but the LGBTQ community is not a specific target audience of the museum. Although there were initial concerns on the part of some, the artwork selected did in fact meet the criteria for exhibition (i.e. the content of the photographs is relevant to children and families). Additionally, based on the positive feedback from our participation in San Jose Pride 2011, we were confident that the visiting public would embrace the exhibition.

  • Lessons learned, mistakes we made (and what we did about them)

    From the moment we opened the show, staff and visitors alike expressed their enthusiasm. We overheard thoughtful conversations among families in response to the prompts and saw lots of great drawings from visitors of all ages. We were pleased to see that the vast majority of the drawings were focused on the family theme.

    If we were to do it again, we might like to include work that shows broader diversity within the LGBTQ community.

    Even though our exhibition focused on a single family, many visitors shared with us that it resonated with them personally.

    While passing through and tidying up one afternoon, Lisa observed three generations of women seated at the talk-back station. The youngest in the family was drawing while talking with her mother and grandmother about their family. As Lisa turned the corner to leave, the mother stopped her to say, “I really like this exhibit.” Lisa thanked her. The woman smiled and said with a wink, “It means more to me than you know.”
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