Elee Kirk

Children, Nature, Museums

Visitors Archive



June 2015



Notice Visitors, Create Joyful Gallery

Written by , Posted in Children, Exhibitions, Natural history, Visitors

A while back, I discovered that Derby Museum and Art Gallery was about to open a new natural history gallery. This was exciting to me for three reasons: firstly, because I ‘collect’ natural history galleries by visiting as many as I can; secondly, because Derby is very easy for me to get to; and thirdly, because the new gallery had the incredible name of ‘Notice Nature Feel Joy’. This I had to see.

Last week, with my sister, Alice, in tow, I managed to get to the new gallery. It’s a lovely space: calm, bright and clutter-free, and full of natural materials (including, of course, the natural history collections). Alice said that it made her feel like she was in a forest.

We were also lucky enough to speak to Andrea Hadley-Johnson, who led the project to put the gallery together. When I asked where the concept came from, she explained that from the outset, the museum didn’t have a particular plan, or even a name for the gallery. All of this came from work carried out with visitors and volunteers to find out what they wanted from such a gallery, what objects they wanted to see, and what nature meant to them.

Andrea explained that her background is not in natural history curating, but in shop design. Her concern was therefore to really understand how people move around gallery spaces, and to make the most of their own behaviour and interests. The process of working with visitors showed that what they valued about these galleries was the chance to stop and appreciate the interesting animals, minerals and fossils from the museum’s collections.

Thinking back now to my visit, and looking at my photographs, a couple of things really stand out for me about this gallery:

First, the layout is brilliant. The central cases are very cleverly set at quite a low height. This isn’t, as I first assumed, for access reasons, but instead to encourage people to stop and bend down to look at the objects, rather than simply glancing at things as they walk past. However, as is often the case, access and wider benefit go hand in hand — almost all of the cases are at easy eye height for even the smallest children, who I have seen struggling to see into cases in many other museums. (In fact, as this picture shows, some of the cases were so low that only small children and the most determined/flexible of adults would see them!).  The layout, and other features such as bookshelves and chairs, help visitors to really settle into spending time in this gallery, this fulfilling the first part of the gallery title — to ‘Notice Nature’.

Secondly, the gallery is neither didactic nor depressing. Many natural history museums have tried to work out how to get people to learn and care more about nature, with the long-term hope that this will encourage people to be more conservation-minded. There are a couple of problems with the galleries that arise from this concern. The first is that people tend not to learn many new facts from museums, but instead reinforce what they already know, which begs the question of whether its worthwhile putting the equivalent of a textbook on the walls. The second problem is that by preaching on themes such as environmental damage or extinction, museums risk making people feel depressed and disengaged from nature. Instead, this gallery focuses on nurturing people’s positive emotional responses to nature, thus fulfilling the second promise of the title — Feel Joy!

In fact, what this gallery does best is to trust visitors to get on with making their own connections with nature. Almost everyone will have at least some knowledge of nature, and for those who really want to find out more, information is available in booklets on the cases. For everyone else, the main job is to be wowed by the variety, form, feel and beauty of the objects, and to enjoy doing so. By nurturing people’s positive connections with nature, it may well be that a gallery such as this actually does more to foster a conservation ethic than galleries that make visitors feel hopeless about the future of the natural world.

The museum’s valuing of personal connections was, I think, epitomised for me by one of the last things I spotted as I looked around the gallery — a child’s picture of a beetle, displayed in amongst the case of beetle specimens. This is the sign of a museum that really notices and appreciates its visitors, just as it wants visitors to notice and appreciate the collections.



February 2015



On How Museums Got Under My Skin

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Gosh, it’s been a long time since I’ve blogged. Last year was a busy one, to say the least: I spent the first half of the year finishing off my thesis, and then almost immediately began working full time. There’s also been a big and slightly disconcerting change in my life — for the first time in 14 years, I am neither studying, nor working in, museums. I’ve also had very little time to visit museums, so at the moment I’m feeling a bit like there’s a gaping, museum-shaped hole in my life. It’s made me wonder why museums are so important to me.

Several years ago, my parents moved house. In the process, they discovered one of my old primary school exercise books, dating from when I was around 10 years old. In a style that was typical of the ’80s, one of the pieces of work I had undertaken was entitled ‘What I will be doing in the year 2000’. Unfortunately, for a museum person, I am spectacularly un-nostalgic, and seem to lack the urge to hoard, so I no longer have the book. But as far as I remember, my prediction was something along the lines of: ‘In the year 2000 I will be working in a museum. I will live in a flat and have a cat and a car.’

What is strange about this is that I actually have very few significant memories of museums from my childhood.
I know that as a family we visited museums. I vaguely remember a collection of chimney pots somewhere; like all children from the West Midlands, I remember ‘legging’ through a tunnel on a canal boat at the Black Country Living Museum; I remember being impressed by the slice of giant redwood at the NHM; and I remember my little sister rushing ahead to push buttons and pull levers (in which museum I can’t recall, although it was probably more than one), while I lagged behind to read all the labels. But I don’t have a ‘Wow!’ moment, or even a strong sense of one particular museum that was important to me.

As I grew older, I seem to have stopped thinking about museums. I remember in my early teens deciding that I would probably be a teacher. At some point I considered pharmacy and geology. As an idealistic sixteen-year-old, I decided to become an environmentalist. But somehow, none of that happened, and as an undergraduate, museums re-surfaced. I did a Masters Degree in Science Communication, and got a job in a science museum. It was 2001. My childhood prediction was just one year out (the cat came later, and there’s still no sign of the car).

So how is it that, in spite of a lack of powerful museum-based memories, museums seem to have been so important to me? Without a wow factor, how did they get under my skin? I wonder if it is because memorability is not necessarily the same as meaningfulness. I may not have had that ‘Wow!’ moment that many museums feel they need to induce in their young visitors, but in spite of this, I connected easily to museums, to their spaces, and their objects, and their atmospheres. They became part of me, and they felt like home.

I occasionally saw this happen during my doctoral research with four and five year old children at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Of course, many of them were wowed by parts of the museum (as is only right and proper, when you come face-to-face with a T. rex), and some, it must be said, were bored by it. But a few children found parts of themselves there: scorpions, minerals, dinosaurs, sharks. Here were the things the children loved, and so the museum made sense to them, and they connected easily, often quietly, and maybe even deeply, to it.

I don’t want to suggest that museums shouldn’t aim to wow their visitors, and that they shouldn’t aim to present visitors with novel ideas. But I do think it’s worth reflecting on the actual experience of how museums become meaningful to people. What or who is it that makes people of all ages feel that a museum is the right sort of place for them? What does it look and feel like for someone to connect to a museum? And what will grow out of these connections?

As for me, well, of course I regret losing that exercise book: I now feel I should have had it framed. But what I really don’t want to lose is museums themselves. Maybe it’s about time I got visiting again.



July 2012



Welcome to the gallery of the real

Written by , Posted in Exhibitions, Taxidermy, Visitors

Some time last year I was in a natural history gallery with a Natural History Museum educator from the USA. I asked her, “What question do children most commonly ask in your museum?”, already anticipating that the answer would be, “Is it real?”. I was right, of course, with children’s favoured question number two, on both sides of the pond, being, “Did you kill it?”.

The world over, young children seem to be totally baffled by taxidermy. A couple of months ago I visited the Oxford University Museum of Natural History with my two nephews, aged seven and four. They spent most of the visit trying to get their heads around the relationship between ‘real’, ‘alive’ and ‘dead’. “But when are we going to see the real ones?”, they kept asking. And they weren’t convinced by my patient, rational response that these were real, they were just the skins of dead animals that someone had stuffed to make them look alive. To the boys, ‘real’ meant ‘alive’ (more…)



July 2012



Observation Notes: Not All Bones are Dinosaurs

Written by , Posted in Research, Visitors

Over the past couple of years I’ve spent a lot of time at the wonderful Oxford University Museum of Natural History, where I’m carrying out my PhD research. Although the bulk of my research has involved getting four- and five-year-olds to take photographs for me (as I described in my very first post), I have spent almost as much time wandering around and around the museum, observing visitors more generally.

I really love doing observations. I think it’s easy to imagine that most museum visits are quite mundane – we see the other visitors milling around, or we mill around ourselves, and everything blends into the hubbub of the crowds. But when you start paying attention to the individual conversations, you see that actually the museum glitters with gems of quirky conversation and idiosyncratic behaviour that reveal the individuality of each visitor’s experience.

My approach is definitely one of participant-observer than invisible social scientist. I find it almost impossible to stand back and blend in with the furniture while carrying out observations. Actually, I’m not even sure this is possible in the museum – a semi-social space where we are all on public display, and the behaviour of other people can be as fascinating as the exhibitions. I’ve found that sitting with a clip-board actually makes me stand out more than just hanging around and occasionally making comments to other visitors as I might do were I a visitor myself.

So some time last year, I found myself having the following conversation as I stood by the large skeletons in the photograph above. A small boy looked at the skeletons, then turned to me, a random adult, and asked, “What sort of dinosaurs are they?”

“They’re elephants,” I replied.

“Elephant dinosaurs,” he said.

“No,” I said, “they’re elephant skeletons. You know we all have bones in our bodies?” He nodded, suspiciously. “Well,” I said, “these are the bones from inside an elephant.”

The boy narrowed his eyes, looked at the skeletons, looked at me and then walked away. Clearly, I was deeply misguided. He was in a museum. Museums are for dinosaurs. Dinosaurs are giant skeletons. Heck, there’s a giant T. rex stood right in the middle of the museum. Stupid lady.

I hope I didn’t ruin his day. It’s a tough moment in a boy’s life when he comes to realise that not all skeletons are dinosaurs.

Ah, the ethical minefields of social research!

(A version of this post originally appeared on my now-defunct Tumblr blog Stuffed Stuff)



June 2012



100 Languages of Visitors

Written by , Posted in Research, Visitors

I said “Do you speak-a my language?”
He just smiled and gave me a Vegemite sandwich

Land Down Under, Men at Work

When I worked in a museum in multicultural Birmingham (UK), myself and the other staff would sometimes worry about whether or not we should provide any of the museum text or leaflets in additional languages other than English. Since starting my PhD I’ve gone back to thinking about the languages used in museums, but my concept of language has changed somewhat.

My research in part draws on the Reggio Emilia approach. For those of you not familiar with early childhood education (probably the majority of you), this is a progressive preschool education system from northern Italy, much beloved of and envied by nursery teachers everywhere. One of the concepts that Reggio educators like to use is that of the “100 languages of children”. They don’t mean “language” in the sense of English, French or Mandarin, but rather any means by which children take in information about the world, and then express their understanding to other people.  (more…)