Last week, I received an inquiry from Mary Maher, editor of Hand to Hand, a magazine put out by the Association of Children's Museums, about Museum 2.0. Why, Mary asked, were there no posts about children's museums on this site? I did a quick mental scan, and she's right; with the exception of a few mentions of the Exploratorium and the City Museum (both of which are much more than children's museums), Museum 2.0 has focused on "interactive" and "collecting" museums, with much attention paid to the ways adults engage therein. So today, we start righting the wrongs and welcome the kids to the table.
Why aren't children's museums represented on Museum 2.0? One (positive) reason is that children's museums already do so much 2.0 stuff naturally. At children's museums, visitors ARE participants. It's hard to fool yourself into thinking you define the museum experience when your visitors are jumping on, chewing, and giggling at your content. Children don't have the same social hang-ups as adults and are likely to share their experience with strangers while in the museum. Visitors use the exhibits as owners and come back to reuse again and again. Finally, children's museums are the original home of user-generated content, from face-paintings to puppet shows to take-home projects.
But Mary is also interested (legitimately) in the media side. As she puts it:
With an audience of mostly young children and families in primarily non-collecting hands-on museums, most of them small, what are the best web strategies?In her wanderings, some children's museum folks have objected to heavy investment in the web, citing both the power of the in-person visit (how could it possibly be extended?) and American Pediatric Association guidelines to push kids away from computer screens and out into the world. After all, we want kids to come to our museums specifically to have the multi-sensory experiences not available on the web. Why try to extend that to the web?
The answer is the same for children's museums as it is for any other museums: kids are on the web anyway, and we might as well use that fact as an opportunity to connect with them in their homes. When it comes to "extending the visitor experience," I think children's museums are ideally positioned for web activities. The tendency to visit as a family can extend the positive of the in-museum experience (quality time) to shared experiences at home. I know lots of parents who spend quality time with their kids surfing YouTube, giggling at the dancing cats. Why shouldn't a children's museum website be a place for fun, safe content that family members can explore together?
In particular, I think children's museums could benefit from some of the "record yourself" experiences that other museums, primarily interactive science centers, offer. For example, when you visit the Ontario Science Centre, you can record your own stop motion animation, which you can then access on the web at home. Similarly, here at The Tech, you can take thermocamera pictures of yourself, perform DNA experiments, and other activities--all of which populate a personal website for you to visit again from home. These personalized websites are not heavily trafficked; 10% viewership is considered pretty darn good. But in a children's museum context, I could see these websites getting much more use. Parents want cute pictures of their kids (and if you search "children's museum" on Flickr, you'll find over 20,000 images). Kids want recordings of themselves performing. Everyone wants these to be shown and shared in a safe environment. And since many children's museum visitors return again and again, the vision of these personal websites evolving into a more meaningful documentation of your experiences at the children's museum becomes viable.
Take it to the next level, and museums could network these personal sites to create an internal, safe visitor social space where kids could view each other's work. Teachers or grandparents could maintain bookmarks of their students or grandchildren's updates with each visit. It may not be safe or appropriate to broadcast all of this content out to third party sites, like YouTube or Facebook, but you could effectively imagine a museum creating their own micro-Facebook for visitors to the museum, with updates when new exhibits were used, new photos recorded, new stories written.
For the adult museum audience, creating a parallel Facebook or similar makes little sense. Why compete with a social network giant that can do everything bigger and better than you? But children's museums are another story. There is no safe, family-friendly social networking site for young children, teachers, and parents. Very few people have attempted to create web spaces that are easily navigable by children who don't read well. Children's museums could carve out a niche, and provide a real service, by creating these kinds of web platforms, which encourage use of the real museum and support discovery and exploration based on museum experiences.
Children's museums deal in experiences, not collections or text-oriented content. It's tricky and often expensive to create web-based museum-like experiences... How do you convey making giant bubbles on the web? How do you create a blog around the excitement of sitting on a giant concrete dinosaur? While there are certainly some neat web-based children's museum experiences out there (Pittsburgh's inspired chicken-based navigation comes to mind), creating web "experiences" is often more expensive and complicated than creating a record of and sharing in-museum experiences.
Beyond recording, I'd suggest that children's museums start blogs geared towards different audiences--parents, teachers, kids--and use those to share museum-endorsed links, upcoming programs, and ask questions of the audience. Every kid likes to be polled, and plenty want to share their personal experiences--check out the Club Penguin blogs for confirmation of that. Another interesting site to check out is imbee, a new social networking site for kids ages 8-14.
But children's museums serve a younger set of kids, and they are in position to likewise serve their audience on the web in unique ways. Ultimately, the web experience should complement the museum experience, not offer a screen-based carbon copy. The starting question should be: how do we want to grow? Which growth areas could be best served by web media?
Social networks of personal webpages populated from museum experiences is one option. But there are others as well. Children's museum folks out there: what do you imagine your web presence could be? What are your challenges, and where do you want to grow?