Elee Kirk

Children, Nature, Museums

children Archive



July 2018



Snapshots of Museum Experience Now Published.

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Snapshots of Museum Experience (Routledge, 2018)

I’m delighted to announce that Elee’s “Snapshots of Museum Experience: Understanding Child Visitors Through Photography” has now been published by Routledge. I’ve not yet received the author copies, but I’m looking forward to seeing the book in real life.

Elee’s book is available initially in (prohibitively costly) hardback and ebook formats, so if you want a copy, it might be better to get in touch with your local library.  There will also be a cheaper paperback edition coming out next year. And it is now listed on Google Books, so you can read some of the content over there as well.

Finishing Elee’s book has been something of a labour of love. It has taken a while, but I hope that the book in its final form is something of which she would have been proud.



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.



April 2015



Finding the Familiar in the Unfamiliar, Or, Reece in Space

Written by , Posted in Children, Exhibitions, Meaning, Photography

Last weekend I visited Leicester’s National Space Centre with my seven year old nephew, Reece. As a researcher, I have an annoying tendency of carrying out experiments on my poor nephews. I decided a little while ago that I’d like to start visiting museums with families that I know, and, just as I did during my doctoral research, giving the children cameras to record their visits. The main difference from my PhD research would be that this time I would actually get to join in with the visit. So this was my first attempt at this new project. It was also Reece’s first visit to the Space Centre.

In spite of being related to me, Reece’s family don’t visit many museums, preferring more energetic and outdoor activities. Over the past few years I’ve taken my nephews to an animatronic dinosaur exhibition, to Thinktank, the Birmingham Science Museum, and to the Transport Museum in Coventry. Reece also told me that they’ve been to the Sea Life Centre. This is probably more museum visiting than many children manage, but still not enough to make these comfortable and familiar places to be. It also became clear that Reece doesn’t have a strong personal interest in space as a topic, so the actual theme of this centre didn’t give him any hooks upon which to hang his understanding of where he was and what was supposed to happen there. What all of this meant that the really interesting thing about our visit to the Space Centre was the number of ways in which Reece connected this unfamiliar, over-stimulating, and confusing place to things that were familiar and comprehensible to him. (more…)



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.



August 2012



Shelves of Zebras

Written by , Posted in Exhibitions, Taxidermy

This lovely display of zebras can be found at the Natural History Museum’s outpost at Tring. It’s a delightful museum, built around the collections of Walter Rothschild, a classic British eccentric aristocrat. There are pictures of Rothschild riding around on giant tortoises, with a lettuce leaf held out on a stick to encourage them to walk, and another of him in a carriage pulled by zebras (I don’t know if any of the ones in the picture pulled his carriage…).

Rothschild decided aged seven that he would run a zoological museum. This makes me feel a certain affinity towards him, as I too had childhood yearnings towards museums, as proven by a school exercise book from around 1989, in which I declared that by the year 2000 I would be working in a museum (I was out by 1 year — it was 2001 when I got my first museum job).

But back to the zebras… What I love about this display is the way that it strikes a balance between ordinariness and weirdness. In almost any natural history museum that you care to visit, you will find specimens displayed like this, on glass shelves at various heights in a class cabinet. But what is odd about this one is a) the animals are all quite large, and b) they are all the same type of animal. Plus, the taxidermy is so beautifully done that they have a certain nonchalant quality, as if they just happen to be hanging around in a museum display case.

I noticed during my research in the Oxford University Museum of Natural History that young children often notice or imagine relationships between taxidermied animals. Displays like the one above are great for this — you don’t need anything as obvious as a diorama to imagine something going on between the animals. Even a technique as simple as facing some animals towards each other and some away creates a strangely compelling social scene.

But what’s also lovely about this display is that it somehow has the feel of a work of art, but without the affectation of art. It is essentially a comparative study of zebra species, and yet within this display we also have aesthetic appeal, surprise, narrative and wit. Or am I just getting overexcited by some shelves of zebras?

(This post builds on a post that originally appeared on my now-defunct Tumblr blog Stuffed Stuff)



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



Biophobophilia, or, why children (sort of) love big, pointy teeth

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During the course of my research at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon. This may not come as a surprise to those of you with children, or who actually remember being a child, but it seems that children really love animals with scary teeth. In this particular museum, the favourites seem to be a large stuffed crocodile, and a model T. rex head.

My PhD research involves getting 4- and 5-year-old children to photograph things they like in the museum, and then talk to me about the pictures. Two thirds of the children photographed this head. And when it was mentioned in interviews, children often told me that they liked it (it was sometimes a favourite), that they liked it’s sharp teeth, and that they had put their hands in its mouth or touched its teeth.

So the children talk about it as something scary, but in a fun way. Like Jurassic Park, they seem to know it isn’t real, but still appreciate it’s scariness, albeit in an entertaining manner.

But I saw something slightly different when I did observations in the gallery. Some children seemed genuinely scared of it. Parents would try to get children’s photos taken with the T. rex, and the children would back away, shake their heads, sometimes even cry. It seemed to be actually, genuinely frightening.

At one point, I saw some parents trying to get their little boy to go up to it, which he refused to do. I joined in the conversation, saying that I thought it was pretty scary (it had actually scared me earlier in the day – they had moved it so that it was now on the base of the T. rex skeleton, and in this new position it caught me unawares). The boy stopped to think about this. And then he decided on a course of action. He would subdue the beast. He reached into his pocked, took out a box of tic-tacs, and held up a sweet to the mouth of the T. rex.

I think there’s something really interesting going on with all of this. E. O. Wilson talks about Biophilia – the innate love of certain elements of nature that humans feel, due to our evolutionary history. For example, we are attracted to the landscapes that are most conducive to our survival, or to animals, which we needed to understand to be able to hunt. The flip-side is biophobia – our innate propensity to fear animals such as spiders and snakes, which were threatening to our survival.

So, because words are fun, I’ve coined the phrase ‘biophobophilia’ to describe the situation above. In this word, I want to capture both the sense of children simultaneously loving and fearing scary creatures, but also, the sense that they actually enjoy their fear.

In fact, the fascination with scary animals makes perfect evolutionary sense. The children needed to avoid being eaten by these animals, but the way that humans (and other animals) stay safe, is by learning about our foes. Being nervous of something, whilst also being motivated to look at it and learn about it is actually a really effective way of making sure we don’t get eaten by it.

So while the children (sort of) know that the things they see in the museum can’t really eat them, in the dark recesses of their brain, biophobophila keeps these modern, urban children, who are more likely to be killed by a car than a crocodile, totally fascinated by big, sharp, scary teeth.



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



Cameras, Children and Museums

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Hello, and welcome to Through the Museoscope. This is my brand-new blog, in which I plan to talk about the things that interest me about visiting, working in, studying, and generally thinking about museums. For more on the name of the blog, check out the ‘About’ menu.

I thought I’d start of by talking a bit about the research that I’m in the process of carrying out right now. I’m currently about 3/4 of the way through a PhD at the very wonderful School of Museum Studies, University of Leicester, UK. My thesis explores young children’s experiences of natural history in museums. After spending the first year and a half thinking about and trying out different methods, audiences and museums, my project ended up at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History (visit it, it’s great!), getting 4- and 5-year-old children visiting with their families to use digital cameras to photograph the things they liked about the museum. (more…)