Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Not Another Grocery Store Exhibit!

I was very fortunate to be able to give a presentation on exhibition development and exhibits resources during the Emerging Museums Pre-Conference during the recent ACM (Association of Children's Museums) meeting in Philadelphia.

We had lots of fun at the Pre-Conference discussing unusual places to find exhibits resources , making prototypes, and even blowing stuff up in a museum MacGyver moment (really!) but I ran out of time before I could slice up a few "Museum Sacred Cows" related to museum exhibits.

But before I finished my talk, 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. People really do that? In things called "museums," they install fake plastic grocery stores? I guess I lead a (happily) sheltered life.

  2. This made me laugh. Though I have to say in any area where there are loose parts - Blocks, costumes, puppets, books, clipboards and paper, trucks, you name it - it takes just second for a child to turn an exhibit into a tornado. A "store" provides great opportunities for role playing and inter-generational and inter-family interaction, but only if it is a good exhibit.

  3. @Cathy

    Two things:

    1)I'm all for loose parts in exhibits!
    The main difference with loose parts in a "non grocery store" exhibit is that visitors control the thrust of an activity. With blocks you can build a castle, a rocket, a bridge, etc. In a grocery store, a piece of fake fruit is always a piece of fake fruit.

    Also, practically the only point of loose parts in a grocery store exhibit is to take them off the shelves. At least it's possible to meaningfully do other things with puppets, books and blocks than just make a mess.

    2) Could you please point out an example of a "good" grocery store exhibit that has truly shown "role playing and inter-generational and inter-family interaction?" Because that sounds like fundraising BS or after-the-fact raionalization to me. :-)

  4. As a science museum educator who has had "loose parts" from various exhibits tossed at me during live presentations, I have some reservations about loose parts for loose parts sake in exhibits...

    Which brings me to my my first "sacred cow" kvetch..the assumption that hands-on is necessarily minds-on. You can touch something up the wazoo and still not come away with a new idea. I've seen many so-called old-fashioned behind-glass untouchables generate amazing discussions, even with young children.

    Second windge, is something an astute children's museum educator pointed out to me a long time ago-that asking questions is NOT necessarily the same as curiosity. People ask questions for many reasons. For every thoughtful question there are ten uninspired ones.

  5. Yes - hands-on, brain-off is more common than we'd like to admit in our museums... Hands-off, brain-on is better than that.

  6. @paul

    2) Could you please point out an example of a "good" grocery store exhibit that has truly shown "role playing and inter-generational and inter-family interaction?" Because that sounds like fundraising BS or after-the-fact raionalization to me. :-)

    Nail on the head. No, you can't justify the interactive with talk of motor skill dev either. Misguided sacred cows, yes. Maybe if you could incorporate shopping based on what the visitors nutritional needs are. You could bring in menu planning, seasonal choices, or even touch on the amount of processing that is needed to produce a food choice.

    Loose parts work best when they don't need to be reloaded. That approach makes for a more difficult design process, but in the end everyone wins.

  7. I'm a member of an AmeriCorps team at the Providence Children's Museum, and I spend part of my time staffing exhibits. Our grocery store is a 1960's bodega/restaurant, part of a series of rooms representing the stories of immigrants to Rhode Island in different eras.

    One advantage that I see to this exhibit is that it provides easy entry points for adults to participate in pretend play. Grocery and restaurant scenarios have a lot of well-defined roles (shopper, cook, register, shelf-stocker), and involve lots of coming and going. Both of these seem to lend themselves well to both adult participation and interactions between kids in different families because it's easy to join into ongoing play (I experience this as a staff member as well).

    Parents who feel too inhibited to be a construction worker driving a truck seem to be much more comfortable walking up to the counter and ordering food from their children. This draws the adult into the play interaction, and I often see it leading to the adult mixing food alongside the child, or taking a turn at the register while the kid brings up basket after basket of produce.

    Right now at our museum there is a lot of conversation about the importance of free, imaginative play for children (the link in my profile leads to the museum blog which has a number of posts on this topic.) While the play that goes on in the bodega may be less open-ended than in our block area, I do think it gives parents the chance to appreciate and pay closer attention to how their kids play, and it also sends the message (through participation) that their play is important. Maybe grocery store play could help prime parents to play alongside their children in other areas?

  8. @melissa

    Thanks for sharing you comments. I guess I'll just agree to disagree with you on the topic of grocery store exhibits. Viva la difference! Viva la block table!

    While positive interactions like the ones you describe can, and do, happen --- I'd be willing to bet that the percentages of such positive interaction by visitors is much less rosy than you describe.

    Secondly, the type of frantic and unfocused behavior that is often fostered by grocery store exhibits can also "prime" young visitors and adult caregivers for how to behave in other parts of the museum in unintended ways.

  9. @Paul & Melissa

    Melissa beat me to the punch with a response. I also work at Providence Children's Museum and I concur with everything she said. I would add that since the store is based on the real-life 1960's bodega of a local icon in the Dominican community we have overheard conversations about what it was like to have a market where you could buy familiar food (plantains, papaya etc) when you were so far from home. There is also a wonderful story of a child in one of our after-school clubs who got all of the kids to conduct their business in Spanish in the store (he translated for those who didn't speak Spanish). He then later brought his father (who is Dominican) to the exhibit announcing "this is our store."

    However, I will grant you that a block has a greater potential for imagination than a can of beans in a store.

  10. We took our family of 5 children ages 7 and under to the PLEASE TOUCH MUSEUM in Philadelphia this weekend and of the whole entire museum (which is huge)they loved the fake supermaket the best! They did put just about everything they could fit into those small shopping carts BUT the difference here was the exibit workers played a matching game with the children. On the bottom of the play food boxed there was a colored and a number. The number was the isle and the color was the shelf that the item went on. They had just as much fun putting the items away as they did pulling the items off the shelf and it was very educational too! I am all for the fake grocery stores as long as the museum and staff work with the parents and children to make sure those rules are followed in a fun educational way. My kids loved it soooo much, that we are making our very own "grocery store" out of a spare room in our home.