Designing for and Supporting Family Interaction in Museums

January 1st, 2016

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Designing exhibits to support family learning is a widely shared goal among museums. Thus, there have been many efforts to make exhibits more “family friendly” over the last three decades as researchers and evaluators explore learning in the context of family museum experiences (Ellenbogen et al., 2004). In this line of work, families can be broadly defined as intergenerational groups composed of at least one adult and one child. The adult is often a parent, but can also be any significant adult in a child’s life—a nanny, mentor, or other relative.

Since parent-child interaction is often the goal of exhibitions designed to support family learning, the role of the parent or caregiver is critical (Borun, Chambers, & Cleghorn, 1996; Crowley & Callanan, 1998; Diamond, 1986; Ellenbogen et al., 2004; Falk & Dierking, 2000; Martin, Brown, & Russell, 1991; Paris, 2002; Tunnicliffe & Reiss, 2000). Children have been found to stay longer at exhibits and learn more when a caregiver is actively involved (Puchner, Rapoport, & Gaskins, 2001). For example, Gleason and Schauble (2000) found that when parents participated at a science exhibit children performed better experiments and made more powerful inferences. Conversely, when parents are passive rather than active participants, the learning potential of the visit is limited (Brown, 1995).

Findings from Research and Evaluation 

The role of parent is important; and while parents naturally support their children in many ways (Gutwill & Allen, 2010; Melber, 2007), families still benefit from interventions that provide supportive design and training to promote family learning (Boland, Haden, & Ornstein, 2003; Borun & Dritsas, 1997; Melber, 2007). The ways by which museums support family learning can be clustered into three interrelated domains: framing, attention, and conversation.


Interpretive frames shape the activities children engage in, the conceptual structures that are used during those activities (Klahr & Dunbar, 1989), and influence what information is attended to and remembered (Friedman, 1979; McClelland, 2013). The framing of an exhibit can subsequently influence visitors’ interactions, activities, and conversations. Framing can promote an agenda or goal by offering a particular perspective, suggesting roles, or conveying content through a specific lens. Framing can also encourage families to actively co-participate in an exhibit experience with shared intentions and actions.

Most explicitly, a facilitator can frame an exhibit by telling visitors what is going on. For example, a study at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science included actors at dioramas portraying turn-of-the-century characters (Tinworth, 2009). Labels can also shift the framing of an exhibit in intentional or unintentional ways as Atkins (2009) found when supplies and labels altered a heat camera exhibit from exploratory to “recipe-like” science interactions. Similarly, objects may have particular framing affordances (Eberbach & Crowley, 2005) which can evoke a school-like instructional frame or promote more of an exploratory frame. Kim and Crowley (2010) found that signage can also reframe an exhibit by activating a discipline-specific schema (engineering vs. science), thereby altering exhibit behavior as well as impacting child learning.


Attention is the act of concentrating on a person, object, or topic. Joint attention, specifically, is achieved when two people knowingly attend to the same aspect of their shared environment (Tomasello, 1995). This social phenomenon has considerable benefits in social learning situations and is studied across fields from developmental psychology to neuroscience. Joint attention can increase stay times and inquiry at exhibits, provide conversational opportunity, alter the depth of processing, and lead to increased learning talk or memory outcomes (Frischen & Tipper, 2004; Gleason & Schauble, 2000; Kim & Mundy, 2012; Mundy & Newell, 2007; Striano, Reid, & Hoehl, 2006; Tessler & Nelson, 1994). Museums use various means to increase attention—though not necessarily joint attention- such as manipulating objects, language, and lighting.

Objects can harness attention. The Family Learning Project found that the “selection, construction, and arrangement of museum objects can influence the reading, learning, conversing, and exploring that takes place at the exhibit” (Paris, 2002, p. 323). Seeking to identify what characteristics of objects attract attention, Sandifer (2003) tracked where visitors stopped and stayed at an interactive science museum. He concluded that technological novelty and open-endedness were the two exhibit characteristics important for increasing time spent at exhibits.

Scripted changes to conversation can also affect attention and memory. Tessler and Nelson (1994) refer to this as the “social-interactive effect on encoding,” which was made explicitly clear in their study in which mothers were either asked to talk as they normally would or only respond to their child, but not initiate or elaborate. This conversation intervention showed just how important joint attention is to memory and encoding, for only objects that were talked about by both child and adult were later recalled by the child. Haden et al. (2001) followed up on this study with similar findings.

Changing how objects are physically viewed can also influence joint attention. Tison-Povis and Crowley (2015) looked at how to promote joint attention at dioramas with static, taxidermy animals. Through a lighting intervention, parent-child pairs used a flashlight to explore the dioramas in the darkened condition. This method of restricting the visual field resulted in significantly more joint attention compared to the control group, who saw the dioramas under full light. Once joint attention was established around an object, families were more likely to engage in learning talk about that object. This finding shows how simple exhibit interventions can prompt joint attention and mediate learning.


Family learning happens in conversation and museums can influence this exchange. Parents can facilitate museum experiences through talk (e.g., Borun, Chambers, & Cleghorn, 1996; Gutwill, 2002; Gutwill & Buennagel, 2003; Leinhardt, Crowley, & Knutson, 2002) and have been found to adjust the support they provide (i.e. changing their verbal scaffolding) based on how challenging and interesting they judge the context to be for their child (FLING, 2011; Melber, 2007; Palmquist & Crowley, 2007). It is well established that conversation during an activity influences learning and memory (Fivush et al., 2006; Haden, Ornstein, Eckerman, & Didow, 2001; Hendrick, San Sousi, Haden, & Ornstein, 2009; Ornstein et al., 2004; Ornstein, Haden, & Hendrick, 2004; Tessler & Nelson, 1994). Guided by sociocultural theory (e.g., Vygotsky, 1962, 1978) parent-child conversation in museums has been looked at as both a way to mediate and measure learning (Ash, 2004; Callanan & Jipson, 2001; Haden, 2010; Leinhardt, Crowley, & Knutson, 2002).

Parents can use conversation as a tool for focusing attention, determining child understandings, making connections, and sharing information (Ash, 2004; Braswell & Callanan, 2003; Crowley et al., 2001; Diamond, 1986; Dierking, 1989; Szechter & Carey, 2009). Some parents have particular conversational routines and question asking styles including quiz-like or open-ended question asking (Ash, 2004), which is thought to impact learning differently. Haas (1997) has argued that open-ended questions from a caregiver result in increased learning compared to no guidance or prescriptive guidance at exhibits. Similarly, it seems to enhance a child’s learning when a parent provides associative talk that links current experience with past experiences and knowledge Crowley and Jacobs (2002). Wh-questions (such as asking who, what, where, when, why, or how) are a key part of conversation-eliciting speech (Leech et. al., 2013). Parents have been shown to adopt wh-question strategies as a result of training both outside (Boland, Haden, & Ornstein, 2003; Hendrick, Haden & Ornstein, 2009) and inside the museum context (Benjamin, Haden, & Wilkerson, 2010; Eberbach & Crowley, under revision; Falk & Dierking, 2000; Leinhardt & Knutson, 2004). Encouraging parents without topical knowledge to simply talk about objects is not sufficient for stimulating good explanations and rich learning conversations (Kim & Crowley, 2010). Yet, having content knowledge does not, in and of itself, guarantee deeper, more elaborative exhibit conversations, which could contribute to information sharing and processing (Fender & Crowley, 2007).

Directions for Future Research 

More evaluation and research investigating the impacts of framing, joint attention, and conversation in exhibit design would further our understanding of family learning in museums. To tap into the power of framing, thoughtful consideration must be given to how exhibits cue visitors implicitly or explicitly to activate a particular frame. There is ample room in the literature to build on our knowledge of framing’s affordances in a family learning context. To capitalize on the benefits of joint attention the development of measures for joint attention and the related act of joint engagement would be useful. A fairly large body of work exists around conversation in museums, however, in 2010, Benjamin and colleagues called for more research on “how to promote particular forms of verbal engagement during events that will influence children’s understanding and remembering” (p.502). Ultimately, it is the shared or joint aspect of learning, the co-participation, the parent-child as partner learners that still needs to be supported, designed for, and researched.


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