Family Learning Forum

A Project of the USS Constitution Museum

  • Miniatures or dioramas can offer an intimate view of the past
  • A surprise element hidden within an exhibit or diorama becomes a discovery
  • Discoveries trigger conversation as visitors want to share the surprise
Mess Area - rat in barrel

Why it works

Doll-houses, dioramas and scale ship models have an intrinsic fascination to many people. Staff members of the Indianapolis Children’s Museum, Boston Children’s Museum, and the Phoenix Art Museum have told us of the popularity of their miniatures. Visitors often wonder aloud when they contemplate these elements: “Who made this?” & “How did they do it?” Dioramas include an opportunity to provide context to a scene, and often allow visitors to look closely and discover many layers of details.


An unexpected element within an exhibition can grab visitors’ attention. In a display about food at sea, visitors lift the lid of each barrel to see what foods sailors ate on board. Inside of one barrel visitors discover a rat eating the food. This surprise element also prompts conversation about how food stored in barrels for months at sea might look, and what else might be eating it. During exit interviews this rat is one of the exhibit elements most frequently mentioned by visitors. Over thirty years of hosting a scale ship model show where visitors can vote for their favorite model, it is clear that those which include a surprise element (such as a scale pigeon sitting on the seat of a boat, or a small shark swimming by the anchor) garner a high percentage of the votes cast by younger visitors.

Why should I use this technique?

Discoveries can trigger conversation and encourage visitors to slow down and take a closer look. Shifting scale or including a surprise can stop visitors for a moment and prompt them to share their discovery with another family member. Offering a surprise or reward to visitors who actively explore the exhibit encourages closer examination of all that is on display.