Monday, May 3, 2010

InterActivity 2010 and tweaking a museum "Sacred Cow"

I'm off to St. Paul for the Association of Children's Museums (ACM) InterActivity Conference.  While I'm there I'll be connecting with old and new friends, and presenting during the Emerging Museums Pre-Conference event, and co-hosting an evening Pecha Kucha event with Peter Exley.

If you'll be in St. Paul, please say hello.  If you can't be in St. Paul, I hope to be blogging and tweeting (#IA2010) so stay tuned!

In the meantime, I thought I'd tweak one of the Children Museum world's sacred cows --- The Grocery Store exhibit, by adapting one of my favorite posts below.  Enjoy!

No More Grocery Store Exhibits!

Recently, I threw a chunk or rhetorical "red meat" to a crowd I was speaking with 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 nearly 30 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. I hear you about the grocery store exhibits. But we have one (technically) that I think you might approve of: a 1960s Dominican bodega, developed with significant input from the store's owner, that's one gallery in our "time tunnel" exhibit.

    More here:

    And this blog post has more pictures:

    What do you think? See you at Pecha Kucha!

  2. Paul,
    I build rather than talk about exhibits.
    I find writing critical analysis hard work.
    But I think you have really hit that one on the head.

    My loathed items are
    FEELY holes.
    As a builder making them safe and durable is tricky, as a user you really never know what to expect!
    Either its no longer in there, its sticky or its not that interesting.

  3. Although I don't disagree with your comments about grocery store exhibits, I just wanted to add that the Phoenix Children's Museum has done a rather nice job with theirs. Almost all of the food items were made from re-used packaging from real grocery stores and they have a re-stocking area to the store where museum attendants and parents encourage children to role play that aspect of the supermarket. When I visit with my 4 yr old, we never walk out of that space without putting away the items she has "bought."

    This exhibit also has a section with drawers to pull out and smell various items such as coffee beans, cinnamon, etc. It's a nice sensory addition.

  4. Paul,
    I laughed when I read your commentary on grocery store exhibits- not because it was untrue, but because grocery store exhibits seem so tired and expected that I'd never even stopped to think about these things before!

    Loosely inspired by Kristina's comment, I think it would be interesting to trace the evolution of these grocery store exhibits into more creative, sensory play experiences. I imagine as children's museums develop better and better exhibits, they'll figure out creative ways not to let the grocery exhibit fall behind- or they will scratch it entirely.