When Children Take the Lead in Exploring Art Museums with Their Adult Partners

Article excerpt

Children, as well as parents and classroom teachers, typically have had few, if any, art museum experiences, usually consisting of school field trips organized around so-called "walk-and-gawk" tours (Ott, 1980). Under these circumstances, neither children nor adults are likely to envision themselves having vital, interactive roles within art museum settings, nor to value these settings as "unique educational environments" (Zeller, 1987).

Evident in the literature on art museum education is a call to improve the quantity and quality of visitors' experiences, and as Sternberg (1989) puts it, "motivate people to learn through meaningful [art museum] experiences that involve both thought and feeling" (p. 154). Such experiences are dependent on children and adults developing relationships with art museums. Durant (1996) notes that "for children to develop a meaningful relationship with an art museum, they need to first make some significant connections with it" (p. 24). To get children and pre- and in-service teachers (members of elementary art methods classes) into art museums/galleries where they would connect with the institution, its art, and each other in new, and more meaningful ways, I required the adults to take a child to a museum/gallery where the child effectively served as the tourguide for the adult partner. This article presents a compilation of pre- and in-service elementary teachers' findings, based on reported experiences as learners, action researchers, and participant observers. It adds to existing research on art museum guides or docents (Johnson, 1981; McCoy, 1989; Wendling, 1997), and to present another "participatory approach" in addition to those described by Sternberg (1989), Mayer (1974), Ott (1980), and Durant (1996).

This study developed out of a class assignment based on a Deweyianconstructivist approach to teaching and learning (Simpson, 1996). According to Simpson (1996), constructivism "emphasizes the experience of the learner as integral to the making of meaning and problem-solving" (pp. 3334). When taking this approach, it is vital to understand the learner's frame of reference and prior experiences, recognizing that new experiences and learning will be connected to and used in constructing the learner's world view. Adult participants were asked to document their child-guide's understandings of museum and art museum rules and beliefs about the role of tour guide, and to record the child's descriptions and interpretations of artworks. They also were to reflect on what they and their guides learned through this shared experience.


Seventeen pre- and in-service elementary teachers (15 women and 2 men) chose as tour guides 19 children from among neighbors, nieces and nephews, godchildren, and in a few cases, children, stepchildren, or students. Ten boys and nine girls between the ages of 5 and 13 participated in this study. Nine children were Latino, four African-American, three Asian, two white, and one "Egyptian." Like the adults, all children were lower to middle class.

Most children had never been to an art museum, although many had visited natural history or science museums at least once on school field trips. Older children (ages 10-13) had the same amount of prior museum experience as younger children (ages 5-9). Adults also had little previous art museum experience. That there is no direct relationship between age and amount of art museum experience was an unanticipated finding.


Participants visited 10 different museums/galleries, with half visiting the Norton Simon Museum of Art (See Appendix A). The total represents a wide range, including large and small, university, commercial, community, or world class institutions. Adults chose museums for many reasons: location, size (large or small), stature, nature of collections, special exhibits, or for connections to the local community.

What is a Museum? …