Friday, July 13, 2012

ReWind: Grocery Store Exhibits?

I've spent this week in beautiful Knoxville conducting community input groups for The MUSE, an emerging museum here.  Even though we weren't soliciting specific exhibit ideas at this stage, people couldn't help share their excitement for exhibit areas they had seen at other museums around the country.

Inevitably (perhaps) when the discussion turned to young children, and children's museums, the old exhibit warhorse of the kid-sized grocery store reared its head.  So I thought now would be a good time to re-post the reasons why I dislike grocery store exhibits so, in a screed entitled:

"NOT Another Grocery Store Exhibit!"

At the end of a recent conference presentation, I threw a chunk or rhetorical "red meat" to the crowd by saying that I'd be quite happy if I never saw another kid-sized grocery store exhibit in a children's museum ever again. Given the raised eyebrows and open-mouthed stares from many in the audience I thought I'd share the top five reasons why I dislike grocery store exhibits:

1) Grocery store exhibits are the anthithesis of "green design."
Dumping a truckload (literally!) of fake plastic produce and grocery items onto shelves and into bins sets a tremendously bad example for sustainable exhibit design practice.

2) Grocery store exhibits are unfair to museum floor staff and volunteers.
These galleries might more accurately be called "entropy exhibits" since the main activity for young visitors seems to be to madly rush about pulling every facsimile grocery store item off the shelves, shoving them into the miniature shopping carts or onto the phony checkout conveyor and then leaving. The poor floor staff and volunteers assigned to this area then, Sisyphus-like,
engage in resorting the mess left behind again and again as new visitors enter the mini store.

3) Grocery store exhibits are just creatively lazy.
When I visit a museum with one of these areas, I instinctively think, "well, they must have run out of good exhibit ideas." Despite all the high-minded rationalizations --- "the kids are learning about food groups" or "our grocery store shows visitors where milk and tomatoes actually come from..." I say if that was really what you wanted to get visitors thinking about, there are only about a dozen more entertaining and interesting ways to address those particular topics in an exhibition format than riding the tired mini grocery store warhorse once again. (Although if food groups or farm to store topics were high on your exhibit"wish list" to begin with, I'm not sure I'd want to visit with my kids in the first place.)

4) Grocery store exhibits send at least as many unintended messages as intended messages.
I'd really rather not send the message that it's alright to tear up an exhibit area and make a mess and then leave it to other people to clean up, or that shopping for food is some sort of wacky leisure activity instead of a necessity. If we really thought carefully about the ideas that kids are leaving grocery store exhibits with instead of blithely, and automatically, assuming that frenetic activity in an exhibition area equals "fun" or "learning" we might try out some different ideas.

5) Grocery store exhibits are the worst sort of craven fundraising ploys.
One of the most common reasons I hear directors defend their choice of a kid-sized grocery store exhibit is "We can easily get a sponsor for this." Believe me, after 27 years in the museum business, I understand the need to fundraise, but are you trying to create unique, amazing exhibit spaces, or just sell chunks of museum real estate?

Unfortunately most museum "sacred cows" come from just the sort of "well this is the way we've always done things" or "I've heard it works amazingly well at Museum X" sort of thinking.

What do you think? Do you have some of your own favorite museum "sacred cows" you'd like to throw on the fire? Let us know in the "Comments" section below.

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  1. Paul, I remember you putting us all in a tizzy 20 years ago when you spoke up against "another grocery store exhibit" as we were planning galleries for Minnesota Children's Museum. I appreciated your challenge then and I appreciate your challenge now, although I disagree with some of your reasons.

    I would put thinking about children’s experience at the very top of the list for reasons to have a grocery store exhibit. Grocery shopping is something lots of children do regularly with their parents. While there are meltdowns at checkout, lots of great conversations take place, a routine is shared, a sequence of activities emerges, there are a great many interesting foods and packages to notice and ask about; there is an exchange of money for food. These are everyday moments that matter in children’s lives.

    Children draw on their familiarity with these sequences of activity, their associations with family time and events; they engage in extended dialogue, use interesting words, and look for their own favorite foods when they sort through, select, stock, shop, and even dump out groceries in a grocery exhibit.

    I think grocery store exhibits fall down in several respects. Generally they are not really local, except in the sponsor’s name; local is the everyday connections and relationships children can point to. Messages about nutrition and food sources do not spring from examples or pictures of healthy foods or the food pyramid, but this is a confusion exhibit planners make in all sorts of exhibits; children learn from doing and in store exhibits they are sorting and separating, filling and dumping, choosing and chatting. Besides color and shape, plastic food gives very little useful, and often misleading, information about food; a lemon does not weigh as much as a lobster; a piece of meat does not have the same texture as a doughnut.

    The fact that there are hundreds of bananas, fish, dollar bills, cheese wedges, rolls, and yogurt cartons for staff, volunteers, adults, and children to pick up doesn’t bother me, as long as children have made choices, engaged in conversations; remembered eating that food before; asked questions; tried to read a label; rhymed tomato and potato or rice and spice; laughed; counted change; checked their receipt; offered to help someone; decided to make a cake; tied the strings of the apron; figured out how to maneuver a cart past another shopper and cart; and had "a good day."

    I think grocery stores can–and should be–better: more local, more realistic, with a greater variety of products, perhaps magazines, flowers, kitchen utensils, picnic gear, even a postal window. There's no reason grocery store exhibits can't be designed based on careful observations of what children are doing, saying, and thinking in current grocery exhibits. There are plenty of environments for observing and informing educators and exhibit planners in the messages children actually take away, in ways to encourage more of we want to see, in ways that minimize what interferes with those activities. Tired of the grocery story? Invent a new store. The Louisville Science Center has just opened a Shapes and Stuff Store in the new Science in Play. ( Or, try a pop-up store.

  2. When Jeanne wrote "There's no reason grocery store exhibits can't be designed based on careful observations of what children are doing, saying, and thinking in current grocery exhibits" my brain make the sound of a needle skipping on a record. Designing an exhibit that is supposed to reflect real life by looking at interaction within another fake version? Endless recursion! I really wanted that sentence to read "...based on careful observations of what children are doing, saying, and thinking in current grocery stores!"

    Having worked some time ago as a floor worker at Minnesota Childrens Museum, I agree wholeheartedly with the assertion that children leave with a lot of harmful unintended messages and make the idea of buying food seem like the combo of McDonald's Ball Pit and the Indy 500.

    signed, Sisyphus

  3. @Jeanne

    Thanks for your thoughtful responses --- would that all the planning discussions for grocery store exhibits be so thoughtful.

    I'll agree to disagree with several of your points as well, principally the notion that an explosion of fake foodstuffs that get scattered around and then gathered up by exhausted floor staff is o.k.

    It's not.

    It's disrespectful to floor staff and is an indicator of bad design, not creative possibilities for children.

    As is often the case with individual exhibit components or entire exhibition environments, it's not the ideas that are bad, it's the implementation.

    Although I do wonder if particular sets of ideas and tools (like PowerPoint or Grocery Store Exhibits) tend to inherently bring out poor design choices and results.

    Stay tuned! I've got a post on just that topic coming up soon!

  4. @Jodi

    As a former explainer/floor staff member, I feel your (residual) pain.

    Although your post gives me an idea for a possible new "twist" on the grocery store trope: The Heroic/Mythological Grocery Store Exhibit!

    Think of the possibilities:

    • Searching for the golden apples

    • Navigating your cart between Scylla and Charybdis

    • Making the proper food choices to escape the Cyclops

    • And of course, pushing huge, heavy carts of watermelons up an inclined checkout line only to be pushed back to the beginning every time you near the summit. Sisyphus indeed!

  5. Paul

    I understand the arguments against grocery store and in some contexts I think you're absolutely right. However I would argue that the problem isn't grocery store exhibits per se, but bad implementation. It doesn't have to be this bad!

    I'll start by confirming that I would say that wouldn't I, having opened an under 7's gallery last year that includes a shop. Although we are a science centre (the UK doesn't really have the same tradition of Children's Museums as the US) we get a lot of very young visitors and wanted to create a space more suited to their needs. It was also the first space we created that was explicitly open-ended and designed for non-readers (the lessons of which have fed into subsequent projects).

    Our gallery isn't intended to teach anything about nutrition or food origins as these aren't meaningful concepts until the oldest year or so of this gallery's audience. Instead we're interested in developing roleplay, self-confidence and supporting the transition from parallel play (up to about age 3) to more social interaction.

    The shop is one of four areas in a small (100sqm) space - the others being a garden, a kitchen and a recycling area, meaning the oldest visitors may be introduced to the concept of a life-cycle. The shop is deliberately unbranded, with plain (cardboard) boxes and bottles featuring pictograms to indicate contents. The same pictograms feature on a touchscreen cash register, although most children use the bar-code reader. We cut out the "money tendered" and "change given" stages of the process as this doesn't make sense to toddlers who are only beginning to develop a sense of number.

    As for the loose items/mess question. I too started out on the floor (at Eureka, the UK's first proper Children's Museum). A good floor facilitator interacts with the young visitors, ideally taking on one of the roles in the game. A messy floor is an opportunity to gather a team of workers for the shop to restock the shelves and set the space up as they want it to look. A harassed-looking explainer following children tidying up is an under-trained explainer who needs help developing approaches for working with children in the space.

    So, back to your list:
    1) Yes, unless sustainability was considered during the design. E.g. We have wooden and cardboard props and where we have used plastic (for durability) it is recyclable (if not recycled).
    2) I believe this is a training issue.
    3) Yes, often. Any exhibit trying to teach complex ideas to 4 year olds might need a rethink. But if the starting point was the audience rather than "we need a grocery store" then this needn't be true.
    4) Yes, this can be true (just as it is for every other type of exhibit - that's why this job is difficult but rewarding).
    5) This can be true but again doesn't need to be. We've created a brand-free oasis in the world children inhabit. This is something our adult visitors care about, as evidenced by the success in the UK of the BBC (ad-free) children's TV channels.

    Of course, this is all only my opinion! This is our grocery store at 5.30 this evening:

    Now, if you want to have a go at sacred cows, can we talk about cartoon characters in museums...?

    All the best


  6. @Andy,

    Congrats on your thoughtfully designed "shop" exhibit.

    It certainly supports your point(s) about implementation --- no branding, AND no cartoon characters! ;-)

    1. Thanks Paul - you should hear Ian Simmons get going on cartoon characters too...