Family Learning Forum

A Project of the USS Constitution Museum

PISEC: Exhibits to Facilitate Family Learning

by Minda Borun
The Franklin Institute and Museum Solutions

In 1998, four museums in the Philadelphia area: The Franklin Institute Science Museum, the Academy of Natural Sciences, the New Jersey Aquarium (now the New Jersey Academy for Aquatic Sciences) and the Philadelphia Zoo, collectively known as the Philadelphia/Camden Informal Science Education Collaborative (PISEC), engaged in a program of research and development aimed at improving exhibits to promote family science learning. “The Family Science Learning Research Project” (ESI -9355504) was a three-year research and development project funded by the National Science Foundation. The project had three phases, each a response to a research question:

  • Phase I — What is family learning and how can it be measured?

    Phase 1 was a research study to establish behavioral indicators for family science learning. Visitors’ behavior was studies at a test exhibit at each of the four PISEC museums.

  • Phase 2 — Do specific exhibit characteristics facilitate family learning?

    This phase involved the development and evaluation of four exhibit modifications or family learning components based on the seven characteristics of family-friends exhibits.

  • Phase 3 — Do exhibits that have the seven characteristics of family-friendly exhibits produce measurable increases in family learning?

    The final part of the project was a research study comparing the frequency of learning behaviors for families that used the enhanced test exhibits (treatment group) to families that used the original test exhibits (control group).

The results of this work are published as Family Learning in Museums: The PISEC Perspective (Borun, Dritsas, Johnson, Peter, Wagner, Fadigan, Jangaard, Stroup & Wenger, 1998).

PISEC created a list of seven characteristics of family-friendly exhibits:

  • Multi-sided — the family can cluster around the exhibit
  • Multi-user — interaction allows for several sets of hands and bodies
  • Accessible — the exhibit can be comfortably used by children and adults
  • Multi-outcome — observation and interaction are sufficiently complex to foster group discussion
  • Multi-modal — the activity appeals to different learning styles and levels of knowledge
  • Readable — text is arranged in easily-understood segments
  • Relevant — the exhibit provides cognitive links to visitors’ existing knowledge and experience (p. 23).

When exhibit components that embodied these characteristics were added to existing exhibitions in the four PISEC museums, family learning was measurably increased.

sand pendulums

3 sand pendulums

The “seven characteristics” are necessary but not sufficient qualities for effective family exhibitions. They address the question of how to develop exhibits for learning groups.

Children’s museums have led the way in pulling exhibit components away from the wall. Unfortunately, children’s museums tend to design only for their younger visitors. Tiny tot lands with small furniture and miniature manipulatives signal parents to sit on benches as passive observers rather than participants.

Several children’s museums including the Indianapolis Children’s Museum and the Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia have recently revised their missions from serving children to serving families. History and art museums with text and paintings, which tend to be wall-bound, are beginning to explore how to move interpretive experiences further into the room to accommodate a group of users.

Often science museums will use the lab bench as a model or build individual study carrels with eighteen inches of frontage. The result, for interesting experiences, is the formation of a line.

line at Aging Machine

Line at Aging Machine

A number of museums have applied the PISEC characteristics to the development of exhibitions for families. Kid Science at The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia used the seven characteristics to design an exhibit for families with children ages five to eight. The space is divided into four main zones: earth, air, water, and light. Each zone has a large central icon: a cave, sailing ship, fountain, and light house respectively. Each focuses on a theme from the National Science Education Standards for grades 1-4:

  • Earth — solid objects have weight and take up space
  • Air — moving air can move things
  • Water — falling water does work
  • Light — light travels in a straight line. Shadows are the absence of light.

Prototypes of the interactives in the exhibition were extensively tested with target families to be certain that they appealed to this age group and communicated their messages.

family in KidScience

Family in KidScience

Splash Zone at the Monterey Bay Aquarium was also based on the PISEC principles and was designed to appeal to families with young children.

The Bay Area Discovery Museum in Sausalito recently reinstalled most of its exhibition area. Both indoor and outdoor play areas, themed to Our Place by the Bay, deal with the San Francisco Bay and the animals and plants that live there. Four areas: Tot Lot,Tot Spot, Lookout Cove, and Wave Workshop were developed using the PISEC principles. Summative evaluation shows a high level of family involvement and engagement.

family in Lookout Cove, Bay Area Discovery Museum

Family in Lookout Cove, Bay Area Discovery Museum

The USS Constitution Museum has used PISEC’s seven characteristics and additional factors from the work of Lynn Dierking (1989) and Cathy Donnelly at the Indianapolis Children’s Museum to create an interactive exhibition for families called “A Sailor’s Life for Me?” A comparison of this exhibition and an older, more traditional history exhibition in the same Museum shows that dwell time, family interaction, and visitor satisfaction are substantially higher for the new exhibition.

family in A Sailor's Life For Me

Family in A Sailor's Life For Me

In the last few years, the family-friendly model has been extended to program development, using essentially the same seven characteristics except that “readable” is replaced by “understandable”. The Bay Area Discovery Museum’s Bridges, Miss Kitty, and Gingerbread Architecture programs were all evaluated using the “seven characteristics…” checklist. This exercise revealed a number of problems such as lack of seating for adults and overly scripted docents who left no room for parent involvement, which were then addressed and remedied.

Museums are increasingly adopting a family learning perspective to create exhibitions and programs that appeal to visiting groups. These efforts represent a shift in focus away from a curatorial view of the collection and towards an increased effort to communicate with a broader museum audience.