Elee Kirk

Children, Nature, Museums

OUMNH Archive



July 2012



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

Written by , Posted in Research

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…)