Family Learning Forum

A Project of the USS Constitution Museum

Where Can Visitors Talk?

by Minda Borun
The Franklin Institute and Museum Solutions

Unlike in classroom settings where the learner is an individual student, the learner in informal settings is generally a small group. The individual’s experience is enhanced and shaped by input from other members of the visiting group. The most common visiting group is the family. Families have a culture of shared knowledge, values and experiences. A family group that visits a museum can enrich its culture, storing knowledge for later sharing among group members. If information and associations are acquired by a member of the group, they are available to be exchanged with other members, not just at the moment of acquisition, but at any time in the future. The museum visit enriches the family culture through immediate and potential learning experiences. Further, the museum exhibit not only transmits the new knowledge that it presents, but serves as a catalyst for group members to exchange their associations to relevant prior knowledge that is triggered by the exhibition.

In order to support, rather than thwart the impulse for social learning, it’s necessary to design exhibits that allow for the group to gather and discuss their experiences. PISEC’s Seven Characteristics of Family-Friendly Exhibits are based on the idea of designing for groups. This means that exhibits, particularly interactives, need to be designed for multiple users and to foster group conversation.

The USS Constitution Museum received a National Leadership grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services to explore how to increase family learning in an unfacilitated history exhibition. Seeking to increase their family audience and to make the Museum experience more rewarding, the USS Constitution Museum developed a prototype exhibit called A Sailors Life for Me? involving interactive experiences for family groups. Exhibit development entailed mock-ups and iterative testing of the interactive components. One such component concerns the recruiting of sailors in the 19th Century. The visiting group sits on two sides of a table. One person or team is the recruiter and asks a series of questions using a flip book of questions. The other person or team is the recruit and has to answer the questions. The questions, such as:

Recruiting Interactive question

Recruiting interactive question

The questions go to the heart of the sailing experience at that time and really cause the group to think about the impact of life at sea. The recruiting activity went through several rounds of testing and revision in order to arrive at an activity that worked easily and smoothly and encouraged family engagement and conversation.

Another example of the power of prototyping and creating a space that encourages conversation comes from the Identity exhibition, developed by The Franklin Institute for the Science Museum Exhibit Collaborative (SMEC). The exhibition includes an interactive that allows visitors to morph a photograph of themselves into a person of another race or gender.

Picture Different

Identity exhibit at The Franklin Institute Picture Yourself Different

The interesting insights that derive from this experience are supported by space around the device that allows for the visiting group to see and discuss the results of a person’s selection. The Race and Gender Machine is the catalyst for interesting discussions about the personal and social meanings of race and gender. Through group conversation the exhibit experience becomes broader, deeper, and more memorable.