Connecting Kids To History With Museum Exhibitions

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Kids have profound and important relationships to the past, but they don't experience history in the same way as adults. For museum professionals and everyone involved in informal history education and exhibition design, this book is the essential new guide to creating meaningful and memorable connections to the past for children. This vital museum audience possesses many of the same dynamic qualities as trained historian—curiosity, inquiry, empathy for the human experience—yet traditional history exhibitions tend to focus on passive looking in the galleries, giving priority to relaying information through words. D. Lynn McRainey and John Russick bring together top museum professionals to present state-of-the-art research and practice that respects and incorporates kids' developmental stages and learning preferences and the specific ways in which kids connect to history. They provide concrete tools for audience research and evaluation; exhibition development and design; and working with kids as "creative consultants." The only book to focus comprehensively on history exhibits for kids, Connecting Kids to History With Museum Exhibitions shows how to enhance the experiences of a vitally important but frequently the least understood museum audience.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“In this solid, helpful and readable book there is not a hint of apology that play and fun are anything but the real work of connecting kids to history. Grounded in current research, stuffed with telling examples, organized around the logic of how exhibits are actually imagined and brought to life, this collection of essays will be useful to all of us trying to understand the theory and processes of creating experiences that appeal to and absorb kids, or for families looking for ways to share in each other's enthusiasms, or in support of teachers looking for insights to bring back to and chew on in their classrooms. And there are productive things to mine, not just for history museums and historic sites, but for art, science and children's museums too. What a wonderful addition to our professional literature.”

—Michael Spock, Chapin Hall Center for Children, University of Chicago

“This invaluable compilation of essays introduces museum practitioners to foundational principles of childhood development; translates how the inherent skills and interests of children—from imagination to play—can be applied to historical exploration; and then demonstrates the practical application of this information into exhibition development.Beyond its focus on kids, I found the book a great reminder of the importance of creating exhibits for PEOPLE, and putting our visitors at the center of museum experiences.”
—Lori Fogarty, Director, Oakland Museum of California

“I can't wait to have this book in the hands of my students! This amazing group of authors presents the most current research and innovative thinking. The breadth of examples and frameworks solidly place kids as a core and not peripheral museum audience. The authors speak to each other and build on each other's work, creating a wonderful conversation with a coherent message. They don't just advocate, they provide concrete guidance, models and powerful examples drawn from theory, research and practice. This book goes beyond the audience of kids and the discipline of history, and is extremely valuable for exhibit designers, educators, evaluators, curators, administrators and any museum professional interested in how to make the museum more engaging for kids.”
—Kris Morrissey, Director, Museology Graduate Program, University of Washington

Connecting Kids to History with Museum Exhibitions brings all the questions raised by child visitors together into one volume, attempting to fathom how children’s minds work and to suggest ways of getting them interested in history. … [A] useful handbook for institutions wishing to mount exhibitions aimed specifically at children. As well as providing food for thought and avenues to explore when designing future exhibitions, it assembles theoretical models, a guide, charters, numerous examples, an analytical structure and tables to serve as useful pointers.”

—Annabelle Laliberté, ICOM News

“When educator D. Lynn McRainey and curator John Russick began working in 2003 on 'Sensing Chicago' - the debut exhibit at the Chicago History Museum's new children's gallery - they wished they had a book like this.... Constant conversation and debate made things work [during their exhibition development process], along with adherence to this principle: 'Go talk to the kids,' because while 'we were all once young, we forget what it was like to be a kid.' The volume that evolved from these efforts tackles the challenge of creating a 'meaningful and memorable history exhibition experience for kids' in institutions that were not necessarily designed for this purpose.”

—Museum Magazine

“I would highly recommend this book to anyone involved in the planning and development of history exhibitions or spaces in historic house museums. This book is so much more than about connecting kids to history; it is really about how to plan for visitors of different cognitive skills and abilities and to build exhibitions that will bring history into their lives.”

— Elizabeth Pratt, Connecticut Humanities Council

“Each chapter ends with a useful bibliography or reference list, as does the book, and additional sources are cited for interested readers. Part 3 contains interesting, directive, and effective information, and most readers will turn to these five chapters as primary resources. An excellent chapter by Judy Rand, for example, discusses how to create new kinds of labels and explanatory texts for exhibits and how these can attract and hold children's attention. Highly recommended.”


“The editors immediately draw in the reader by asking 'Is this book for you?' If you are a curator, exhibition designer, educator or historian who has anything to do with a history museum that is visited by kids, then the answer is a resounding 'Yes!' … Connecting Kids to History with Museum Exhibitions is a milestone publication in research on how children learn history in museums. It breaks new ground in three ways. First, it's about kids. The writers understand how kids think and what they need to learn in museums. ...Second, the book is about history not science museums. It shifts the research base from extrapolations drawn from science museums to in-depth, current and thought-provoking research on best practice in history museums. ...Third, the writers have realised there is more to museum education than simply studying visitor learning. Most significantly they demonstrate the importance of critiquing the way knowledge is constructed and communicated to the learner in museums. This more holistic approach to understanding museum education sees the learner and the methods of communication as interconnected and inseparable. ... Connecting Kids to History with Museum Exhibitions should be compulsory reading for all history museum professionals.”

—Louise Zarmati, reCollections: A Journal of Museums and Collections

“Museums and schools have a lot to learn from each other. This book encourages both entities to start with the common ground - the children - and shares perspectives on how to reach them from the museum angle. … [Connecting Kids to History] could encourage an increase in partnerships between museums and schools, more dynamic history museum experiences, and a whole new generation of people well-versed in and seeing the relevance of history.”

—Claudia Ocello, History Matters! (Newsletter of the National Council for History Education)

“In a well-written, honest essay about developing interactive exhibi­tion elements, the Chicago History Mu­seum curator [John Russick] recalls [how] it took him ‘twenty years and two kids’ to understand the value of a basic interactive element to making history come alive for young audiences. It simply was not part of what he had been trained to include or expect in a history exhibition. … Ultimately, this book is for people like Russick who are ready to retrain them­selves in exhibition design. Interactive exhibits, short labels, contextualized sto­ries, and multisensory experiences are not exclusively for children. But in developing them, curators are pushed to work in new ways, to stretch beyond what Elizabeth Rawson calls the ‘book on the walls’ approach to exhibitions. The challenge is not only to understand children and take their needs seriously, but to do so for all visitors. When museums present dull his­tory exhibitions for adults, visitors politely read the labels, look at the objects, and say, ‘well—that’s what the history museum is for.’ Thank goodness we have children to demand something more active, more rel­evant, and more valuable for everyone.”

—Nina Simon, Museum 2.0, in the American Journal of Play

“[A] definitive book covering all facets of children and museums including child development, targeting the different senses, incorporating multimedia, what exactly is 'play,' writing labels and much, much more. … McRainey and Russick's series of essays cover all areas of connecting children with history through exhibitions and fills a much needed gap in our anthology of museum-related texts.”

—Bronwyn Roper (Queensland Museum Resource Centre Network), Artery

“I loved this book and want to suggest that it be used for a history museum 'book club' where each essay forms the basis for a prolonged discussion among history museum practitioners. ...I can imagine lively discussions among administrators, curators, and educators of their perceptions of young audiences and how best to serve them. There are so many good ideas within each of these chapters; they will help us serve all our visitors, not just the young ones.”

—Mary Alexander (Maryland Historical Trust), Visitor Studies

“The key to this wonderful new text on teaching history is defined by the authors' adherence to one basic principle - that 'play and fun' are the motivating factors in all learning. From the opening section, the reader is taken on a journey of self-discovery and educational enlightenment. In particular, the authors drive the reader to examine time-honored assumptions about teaching and learning in light of what we know today about human development, cognitive learning, and developmental frameworks. Not just for history buffs, this multi-dimensional edited collection will resonate with teachers, curators, and parents who know that learning by doing is the opening to smart instruction. This good book shows us how.”

—Jeffrey S. Kaplan, University of Central Florida, Orlando

“I loved this book and want to suggest that it be used for a history museum 'book club' where each essay forms the basis for a prolonged discussion among history museum practitioners. ...I can imagine lively discussions among administrators, curators, and educators of their perceptions of young audiences and how best to serve them. There are so many good ideas within each of these chapters; they will help us serve all our visitors, not just the young ones.”

-Mary Alexander (Maryland Historical Trust), Visitor Studies

“Presents an exciting and confident break from previous attitudes to children as museum visitors. In the past it was often supposed that children find history boring and as a result activities in museums were more concerned with keeping them occupied than with engaging them with content. This book works with the developmental stages of learning to achieve the latter…By connecting children to the process that historians go through, as opposed to just the ‘finished product’, museums allow children to wonder, play, empathise and question, thereby developing an interest in a subject.”

 — South African Archaeological Bulletin


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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781598743821
  • Publisher: Left Coast Press
  • Publication date: 2/28/2010
  • Pages: 334
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

D. Lynn McRainey is the Elizabeth F. Cheney Director of Education at the Chicago History Museum and Project Director for the new Children’s Gallery. She has over 20 years experience in museum education, having worked at art, history, and children’s museums. She recently served as guest editor for the Journal of Museum Education. She has received a Fellowship in Museum Practice from the Smithsonian Institution and participated in the NEH Summer Seminar at Yale University and in the Getty Leadership Institute, Museum Leaders: the Next Generation. She has an M.A. in Art History from the University of Virginia. John Russick is Senior Curator at the Chicago History Museum. He has twenty years of experience in a variety of institutions, including the Field Museum and the Smithsonian Institution. One of his most recent exhibitions, Sensing Chicago, was recognized by the American Association of Museums in the 19th Annual Excellence in Exhibition Competition. He has won awards for his exhibit label writing and he currently serves on the board of the American Association of Museum’s Curator’s Committee.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

Foreword by Phyllis Rabineau


Introduction: Who Needs History? by D. Lynn McRainey and John Russick

Part I: Valuing Kids

Introduction to Part I

1. Never Too Young to Connect to History: Cognitive Development and Learning, Sharon Shaffer

2. It’s about Them: Using Developmental Frameworks to Create Exhibitions for Children (and Their Grown-ups), Elizabeth Reich Rawson

3. Experts, Evaluators, and Explorers: Collaborating with Kids, Anne Grimes Rand and Robert Kiihne

Part II: Connecting Kids to History

Introduction to Part II

4. Finding the Story in History, Leslie Bedford

5. Imagination—A Child’s Gateway to Engagement with the Past, Daniel Spock

6. Playing with the Past, Jon-Paul C. Dyson

7. A Sense of the Past, D. Lynn McRainey

8. Are We There Yet? Children, History, and the Power of Place, Benjamin Filene

Part III: Creating History Exhibitions for Kids

Introduction to Part III

9. Shaping the Space: Designing for Kids, Andrew Anway and Neal Mayer

10. Making History Interactive, John Russick

11. Is it Real? Kids and Collections, Mary Jane Taylor and Beth A. Twiss Houting

12. Write and Design with the Family in Mind, Judy Rand

13. In a Language They’ll Understand: Media and Museums, Gail Ringel

About the Authors

Selected Bibliography


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