Connecting kids to history with museum exhibitions
by D Lynn McRainey and John Russick (eds), Left Coast Press Inc., Walnut Creek, CA, 2010
ISBN: 9781598743838 (pbk), 334 pp., RRP A$55.95
review by Louise Zarmati
Connecting kids to history

In a recent review, I bemoaned the lack of adequate, up-to-date research on history museums[1]. For those of us who work in history museums, it is a relief to finally see a collection of articles that deals specifically with history, rather than science, museums. Connecting Kids to History with Museum Exhibitions is the only book to date that explores comprehensively how museum professionals can design successful history exhibits that engage kids in learning. 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!'

The book is the product of collaboration between educator and project director D Lynn McRainey and curator John Russick, who worked together on the Sensing Chicago exhibition at the Chicago History Museum. It has an impressive array of contributors, many of whom have higher degrees in history, education or museum studies; all have many years' experience working in museums.

The editors realised that museum staff usually do not identify children as a target audience and most have little experience designing exhibitions for them. They attribute this to the 'turf wars' that militate against educators, curators and designers working together. McRainey and Russick set out to bridge this gap in research and practice by successfully demonstrating how museum professionals can work together to produce unfacilitated (free-choice) learning experiences in which kids can have meaningful encounters with history.

The use of the word 'kids' rather than 'children' or 'visitors', sets an informal tone that tells the reader the focus is on a learning experience that should be fun. It is also reassuring to see so many writers use the term 'historical thinking', which is central to current research in history education.[2]

The book is divided into three sections and offers a total of 13 papers. Each section has a preface that introduces themes that bind each paper to the overall purpose of the book, which the editors tell us is to present 'an elaborate argument for targeting kids with history exhibitions'. The three papers in Part I, 'Valuing kids', focus on educational research that helps museum professionals understand the audience: kids.

In Chapter 1, 'Never too young to connect to history: Cognitive development and learning', education specialist Sharon Shaffer explains how the cognitive theories of Dewey, Vygotsky, Piaget and Gardner can be used to create age-appropriate learning activities. She recommends using a constructivist framework based on the premise that knowledge is internally constructed and influenced by external factors. Most useful are Shaffer's 'Characteristics of the young learner', which describe the history capabilities of children up to about 12 years of age.

In Chapter 2, 'It's about them: Using developmental frameworks to create exhibitions for children (and their grown-ups)', exhibition project manager Elizabeth Reich Rawson provides advice on how to produce developmental frameworks to guide the process of exhibition design. By benchmarking children's social, cognitive, and physical milestones, exhibition teams can more effectively match experiences and content to desired messages and affective outcomes. The author provides useful tables, such as 'Curriculum standards findings for social studies (history) for kids aged 4–11'.

The last paper in this section is Chapter 3, 'Experts, evaluators, and explorers: Collaborating with kids'. Curator Anne Grimes Rand and project manager Robert Kiihne shift the paradigm from exhibitions created for kids to exhibitions created with kids. Their advice is that museum professionals should seek the input of kids and involve them in every stage of the planning and development of exhibitions. Kids are the experts on being kids; we should learn from and be inspired by them.

It's great to see that in Part II, 'Connecting kids to history', the five papers discuss not only learning but teaching in museums. These papers shine the spotlight on history pedagogy by critiquing the methods used by museum professionals to present history to kids. From my perspective as a former classroom teacher and history educator this is the most innovative, informative and useful section of the book.

Exhibitions specialist Leslie Bedford presents a well-researched paper in Chapter 4, 'Finding the story in history', that challenges museum professionals to conceive of history in the form of a narrative designed to engage kids' imaginations, emotions, and memories. Primary sources, such as objects, oral histories and the exhibition environment itself can be used as stimuli for children to experience history somatically. These can lead kids through a story that stimulates imagination and assists them in interpretation. Bedford's endnote references to works by Kieran Egan, Chris Husbands and Lisa C Roberts are worth pursuing. The examples of museum narratives discussed by Bedford demonstrate her point that difficult, and sometimes controversial, historical concepts can be communicated to children if appropriate and creative media are used. Some of the examples she gives are inspiring models of best practice.

Daniel Spock is an exhibit designer and interpretation consultant whose message is that museums must create history exhibitions that allow a child's imagination to make affective and empathetic connections with the past in order to interpret history. In Chapter 5, 'Imagination — a child's gateway to engagement with the past', he advises that children can work like historians by using their imaginations. The past must be imagined in order for it to be experienced and conjuring up past events in the imagination is the primary act of thinking historically. Designers should create spatial and kinesthetic experiences to engender memory, which is learning, because 'without memory there can be no learning'.

Jon-Paul C Dyson has the enviable job title of Director of the National Center for the History of Electronic Games at Strong National Museum of Play. In Chapter 6, 'Playing with the past', he declares, 'It is time to use play time to explore past times' and provides practical examples to demonstrate how museum professionals can use play to foster historical thinking. Play in museums must not be an add-on. It must be 'woven into every fabric of the exhibition experience'. Designers should identify practical applications of play in history museums. They should no longer think of labels but 'play-based interactives' to communicate historical understanding to kids. The aim should be for children to master the three basic skills of historical thinking: imagining, storytelling and sequencing.

D Lynn McRainey, the book's co-editor, has a strong background in museum education. In Chapter 7, 'A sense of the past', she suggests that museums should not just provide hands-on experiences. Museums can invite children to 'walk in the sensory shoes of the past.' McRainey explores the role of the five senses in interpreting the present and for making empathetic connections to the past. An effective example is the wall of ice used in Titanic: The Artefact Exhibition, reviewed in this issue of reCollections. By placing a hand on the huge block of ice the visitor is shocked into the disturbing realisation that many passengers froze to death in the icy cold waters of the North Atlantic.

Benjamin Filene, a specialist in public history, recommends using 'here, now and how' to establish a child's place in time. In Chapter 8, 'Are we there yet? Children, history, and the power of place', he reminds us that the sense of place and the physical surroundings of a museum can help kids connect to history. The museum environment itself becomes a pedagogical tool that can help kids understand the past. For example, museums can use primary sources (such as photographs, paintings, artefacts, buildings) in 'then and now' experiences to emphasise how places have changed over time.

The thread that binds together the five papers in Part III, 'Creating history exhibitions for kids', is exhibition design. In Chapter 9, 'Shaping the space: Designing for kids', Andrew Anway and Neal Mayer point out that design and space communicate the message of who is welcome, so it is important to design spaces that are welcoming to kids. A successful exhibition for kids will flow from an understanding of the cognitive and developmental characteristics of children, combined with their natural desire to investigate the world, to pay attention to it and to think about it. Designers Anway and Mayer provide practical advice in their chapters. They remind us to keep in mind that design is iterative: it takes time, testing and evaluation to get it right.

Co-editor John Russick is a curator. In Chapter 10, 'Making history interactive', he argues that interactives should be a central tool of history museums because they are a means of connecting people to the past that can engage kids in meaningful ways. Russick reminds us that 'Children as old as ten are still learning to read rather than reading to learn', therefore history must be communicated without extensive label copy. Interactive experiences are effective when they are incorporated into the design from the start, not just as add-ons. They must engage kids with ideas about what came before and why it matters.

Museum educators Mary Jane Taylor and Beth A Twiss Houting demonstrate in Chapter 11, 'Is it real? Kids and collections', that museum objects can be powerful transmitters of historical knowledge if they are chosen wisely. Objects should be cognitively inviting, physically accessible and emotionally engaging. Kids should be encouraged to make personal, affective connections to the objects so they are embedded in their memories. The authors recommend developing 'object-rich environments' that allow children to handle real artefacts and use them as primary sources. This will help them develop historical thinking skills such as empathy, narrative and sequencing. Creative displays, multimedia, and interactive experiences allow children to have a more intimate interaction with artefacts.

Judy Rand is an independent exhibition developer. In Chapter 12, 'Write and design with the family in mind', she advises us to design exhibits 'for someone' rather than 'about something'. This mind shift moves us away from the idea that all content ideas are communicated through words to accept the challenge of designing exhibits that have no labels; the experience itself will communicate the ideas. Labels are important because they also serve to help adults guide communication with children in social learning situations. When labels are used they must be written, designed and positioned in ways that are appropriate and appealing to children. Most helpful are Rand's excellent examples of short, succinct labels written for kids.

Gail Ringel is an interpretive planner and media producer. In Chapter 13, 'In language they'll understand: Media and museums', Ringel explains why electronic media, such as large screen theatres, interactive computers, audio and video are effective tools for connecting kids to history. Media can communicate complex ideas and concepts as well as allow kids to make choices, demonstrate control and master new skills. The three-dimensional depiction of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius featured at the A Day in Pompeii exhibition is an example of the successful use of electronic media. In seven minutes it managed to communicate what usually takes 20 minutes of textbook illustrations, questions and explanation in the classroom.

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. In most museums, kids have sneaked under the radar of visitor evaluation because they visit with adults, and gaining access to them for research purposes can be challenging, especially when it comes to gaining ethics clearance. But as Anne Grimes Rand and Robert Kiihne point out, the main cause of the problem is that museum professionals simply don't think to ask kids what they think about their museum experience.

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. History is a distinct body of knowledge with its own epistemology, so it is simplistic to assume that what works in a science museum can be transferrable to a history museum. The museum professionals in this collection use their knowledge of history as a discipline and the processes of historical thinking to customise exhibitions that communicate history to kids.

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. For the first time history pedagogy is the discourse model for the analysis. This is an important shift away from the long-standing, one-dimensional, constructivist learning approach of fellow Americans George E Hein, and John H Falk and Lynn D Dierking. Hopefully this approach will set the standard for future studies and highlight the complexities of museum education. Connecting Kids to History with Museum Exhibitions should be compulsory reading for all history museum professionals.[3]

Louise Zarmati is completing a doctorate at Deakin University on history pedagogy in Australian museums.

1 Zarmati, book review, In Principle, In Practice, reCollections, vol. 5 no. 1,

2 P Seixas,'When psychologists discuss historical thinking: A historian's perspective', Educational Psychologist, vol. 29, no. 2, 1994, 107–109; PN Stearns, SS Wineburg, et al., Knowing, Teaching, and Learning History: National and International Perspectives, New York University Press, New York, 2000; SS Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past, Temple University Press, Philadelphia, 2001; T Taylor & C Young, Making History: A Guide for the Teaching and Learning of History in Australian Schools, Curriculum Corporation, Canberra, 2003.
3 You can download a few sample chapters provided by publisher Left Coast Press at If you're interested in further research on history pedagogy in museums then you should attend the conference, Building Bridges for Historical Learning: Connecting Teacher Education and Museum Education', at the University of Canberra Convention Centre on 28–29 March 2011. For more information go to