If you’re a museum professional, it’s likely that you can never just visit a museum. While you’re there, you may be evaluating interactions with staff, filing away mental notes about interpretive text, or low key judging design choices in exhibitions. Like the barista who can no longer stand the smell of coffee, a unique downside of working in leisure spaces is the inability to remove your professional hat and, well, just enjoy yourself.
Indeed, as the parent of a young child, a recent visit to a local science museum during holiday break became an arcane exercise in critical museology and informal learning theory. At the same time, I was duly confronted by the wide disparity between my ideal of a museum educator mom—an ever-patient paragon of constructivism—and the actual reality, a tired and somewhat checked-out parent with waning patience for my 4 year old’s habit of spending just milliseconds at classic, research-based exhibits and hours playing with something we have at home. For your amusement, I am sharing some recent highlights—only slightly exaggerated for comedic effect—from our trip:
We begin at an exhibition relating to air pressure and related phenomena. Latte in hand, I’m feeling up to the formidable challenge of addressing my son’s rapid-fire litany of (admittedly insightful) questions. He points to an exhibit element and asks, “Mama, why is the ball floating in the air?” I unhelpfully reply: “Son, it’s an illustration of the Bernoulli Effect. The exhibit developers cleverly isolated this principle of physics so it becomes easier to understand.” He is unimpressed. We move on.
My son becomes frustrated at a paper rocket making activity station. I become frustrated that he’s consistently drawn to exhibitions that require additional scaffolding when all I want to do is finish my coffee.
Each time we pass a hand sanitizer dispenser, my son stops to clean his hands. I know his desire to clean his hands has nothing to do with public health, but the fact that the dispenser “auto-magically” squirts foam on the ground.
The tension between my professional and personal roles becomes apparent as we stop at a gravity table and my child begins to play with another child. His mother, demonstrating superlative sensitivity to principles of child development, asks both children, “what do you notice about the balls as they roll past the holes in the table?” Appreciative of her facilitation savvy, I take advantage of my son’s erstwhile engagement to check museum Twitter. (Hey, sometimes you can’t always practice what you preach!)
“MAMA! COME PLAY WITH ME!” my child bellows from across the exhibit hall. He’s left me behind as I’m taking pictures of flip panel designs I want to copy.
Another stop at a hand sanitizer dispenser.
Shameless, I have become “that” parent, camped on a bench and basking in the glow of my iPhone as my child runs amok in an early childhood exhibit he is definitely too old for. Why am I zoned out? To my credit, I’m reviewing a draft post for the Museum Education Roundtable’s Museum Visions blog and responding to work emails. Ensuring I’m out of his line of sight, I furtively eat some of my son’s Goldfish crackers.
I absentmindedly wonder how difficult it’d be to try to perform a tracking study in an early childhood exhibit space like this with toddlers and young children. I then realize my son is bogarting the much-coveted driver’s seat of the fire truck replica. I choose not to intervene.
Energized by the Goldfish crackers I stole from my son, I lead him toward the maker space, ready to get my tinkering pedagogy on. Instead, my son tugs me toward an aging model train display. Knowing that we’re in it for the long haul (pun intended), I thank the museum gods that a bench with a back is nearby.
A brief pause for more hand sanitizer.
As anticipated, my young son’s attention expires about an hour or so into our trip. More frequent requests for snacks, a rubbing of the eyes, frenzied engagement: all are not-so-subtle indicators of an imminent meltdown. I eye the exit and plan to evade the siren song of the gift shop with vague promises of “next time” (little does my son know, I get all my gifts from museum shops anyhow).
We both exit the building with sated museum experience expectations, albeit for very different reasons.
Adrienne Lalli Hills is a busy mama, Museum Education Roundtable board member, and Assistant Director of Studio School at Oklahoma Contemporary.