of an Exhibition
by George Buss
Published on January 19, 2009, Modified on August 26, 2009
Museum: State Musuem of Pennsylvania
Visit Date: December, 2008
If there was any doubt what topic the State Museum of Pennsylvania focuses its energies on, the question is dispelled fifteen feet before the granite and glass entrance in the form of a scaled map of the state embedded in the sidewalk. I could walk across the whole state in less than twenty strides. The legs of my two year old daughter strained to make the distance in double my own and instead asked to be carried. In an attempt to balance the professional with the personal, I had mixed family with museum. When I walked into the main entry of the lobby, I feared that I had made a mistake.
We had come to the museum to visit the exhibit Curiosity Connection, developed for the one to five year old audience and their caregivers, (a perfect fit for my foray into career/family tourism.) The museum had built the exhibit in 2004 to orient young audiences to the permanent exhibits in the galleries in a shift towards more visitor-focused experiences. So when I was greeted in the lobby by more grey granite and dim lighting, I was concerned I had entered the wrong building. However, the friendly volunteer assured us we were in the right space and sold us three tickets for five dollars each specifically to the exhibit, as the rest of the museum is free to the public.
She then directed us down a long dark wood panelled hall to the restrooms. Here I once again began to question the museum-family marriage as we entered the dark and dirty family bathroom. The baby changing room was a quick second stop, devoid of sink or running water to wash hands after experiencing dirty diapers despite its double use as the first aid room for injured or ailing visitors. We made our way back to the lobby through the dim halls and asked the volunteer to direct us to our true destination. She pointed to a previously unnoticed glass wall with an unexpected but more-than-welcome cacophony of primary and secondary colors peeking out at us. My daughter wiggled down and made a beeline for the glass door. I fought myself not to do the same.
A staff member opened the locked door from the inside and welcomed us to the exhibit. After a very brief orientation of the guidelines, we were set loose to play. Curiosity Connection offers 2300 square feet of pure play space with limited to no text panels. The first play zone you come to is a child-sized house with bed. The colourful lights are changed by placing a hand on the colored hand shape of your choice on the short dresser, setting the stage for a world in which the child is in control. Through the bedroom closet door, (artfully developed so as not to catch little fingers when closed), the visitor leaves the known environment into a more fantastical one of dark cave that opens out into the Pennsylvania Woodland with large tree and forest mural. From the forest, visitors can choose to visit any of the remaining four areas revolving around the topics of transportation, agriculture, industry, or art.
The exhibit design is perfectly in line with the visitor focused experience for which it had been developed. This space was truly designed with the one to five year old in mind. Every object was within reach of even the smallest of visitor. The tasks were open-ended allowing for creativity and the cross pollination of ideas. The perspective of each exhibit was developed to be seen by a child three feet in height. Two examples of this use of perspective can be drawn from the transportation zone. The first was found hanging above the small planes that a visitor could fly. From twenty feet away, a six foot adult would see these as flat lines of foam hanging from the ceiling, but from below, the child visitor would look up and see clouds of different shapes and sizes. The second is seen in the mural painted in front of the train model. Only from the engineers lookout from the train does the paintings perspective look right. Perhaps the greatest example of visitor focus was found through a door accessed only from the inside the woodlands exhibit. This hidden family bathroom offered a large clean space boasting a child size potty and step stool for hand washing.
In a period of two hours, my family (led by my daughter) had driven a truck while tapping our feet to a carefully chosen rendition of Old McDonald; picked and un-picked apples from a three dimensional velcro apple tree; herded, watered, and rode a small flock of sheep in the shadow of an eight foot tall baby chick; driven a train down a stretch of track towards the tunnel ahead; been birding through the woodlands looking for the slightly shy owl peeking out ten feet above our heads; and worked on the assembly line in a deep night factory shift. My fears of family boredom and discomfort had been dispelled. My professional interest in the educational value of the museum had been piqued.
John Dewey described good education as experiences that lead to more experiences. In his book, Experience and Education, Dewey describes this cycle. Experiences in order to be educative must lead out into an expanding world of subject-matter, a subject-matter of facts or information and of ideas. This condition is satisfied only as the educator views teaching and learning as a continuous process of reconstruction of experience. This exhibit creates experiences for the early childhood audience that can be built on by future visits, classroom experiences, or just living life in Pennsylvania.
The State Museum of Pennsylvanias mission is to serve the public by researching, collecting and preserving artifacts and specimens, which exemplify the Commonwealths natural and cultural heritage, and by telling Pennsylvanias story through educational exhibits and programs. Curiosity Connection is as true and focused to that mission as the granite sidewalk map sitting outside the museum doors, perhaps more so. By offering children the opportunity to freely experience Pennsylvania and the topics of agriculture, transportation, woodland, industry and art, the museum offers a map through which visitors can build future experiences of exploration of the states rich history and future. What may look today as play is really the building blocks for tomorrows Pennsylvania state citizens. As Dewey stated in Democracy and Education, Any experience, however, trivial in its first appearance, is capable of assuming an indefinite richness of significance by extending its range of perceived connections. The playful experiences of children in the colorful exhibit hall of Curiosity Corner today, may yet brighten the dark paneled hallway experiences museums tomorrow.