Sunday, March 30, 2008

Appealing to the Curious George in all of Us

In a recent post, I wrote about the Waterloo Regional Children’s Museum’s attempt to improve the museum’s attendance by working on making the museum appeal to a larger audience and by drawing in visitors through the use of the highly anticipated traveling exhibit Discovering Chimpanzees: The Remarkable World of Jane Goodall”. Upon actually visiting the Children’s Museum, I was equally impressed with both the permanent displays as well as the traveling exhibit.

From the moment one enters the building and walks into the “Grand Atrium” the museum exhibits evoke a sense of wonder and fun. Most noticeable is the abundance of colourful lanterns hanging from the ceiling, which the museum pamphlet explains are part of the Taiwan Lantern Festival of Colour. This cultural exhibit includes 200 lanterns that were hand painted by Taiwanese elementary school students. While waiting in line to pay admission ($5.00 to $7.00 per person during the regular season, and $8.00 to $10.00 during special exhibits), children and adults alike were pointing and gesturing towards the bright lanterns.

Similar to more traditional museums, the Children’s Museum does maintain a small collection of artifacts from Gaudie’s Department Store, who were the original occupants of the building. What distinguishes the Children’s Museum from their more traditional counterparts, is that they are no longer continuing to collect historical artifacts. Instead, the museum is more interested in acquiring more modern and interactive objects. For example, one display contains numerous computers whose manufacturing dates range from 1981 to 2002. Visitors are encouraged to play computer games on each, so that they can see how computers have changed over the course of the last twenty years. This type of focus is typical of children’s museums, as Edward Alexander explains in his text on the history of museums that, “A children’s museum collects objects, not for their rarity, but for their usefulness in interpretation or education. Their exhibitions may include objects, but their intent is to engage, intrigue, and inform their visitors.”[1]

The Jane Goodall exhibit itself was also more compelling than I had anticipated. The children visiting the museum loved the “Chimp Forest” which allowed them to climb into a chimp nest and walk like a chimpanzee. In the “Primates” section, both children and adults enjoyed stepping on special primate scale. The scale informed me that I weighed the same amount as a Chimp and concluded that the eleven year old girl that stepped on it before me weighed the same as a Baboon. My favourite part of the exhibit, however, was the display that mimicked Jane Goodall’s Gombe Jungle home. While sitting in the camp I was able to watch authentic video footage that Goodall took while researching chimps in Africa. As I both participated in the exhibit and observed other visitors’ responses, it was clear that both children and adults were equally captivated.

“Discovering Chimpanzees” has increased the amount of museum members and visitors, while also having a very positive effect on the museum staff’s morale. This was obvious by the friendly, enthusiastic, and helpful nature of the employees. One of the staff members who is in charge of museum fund raising explained that she used to have to call schools and recreational groups to try and convince them to book tours at the museum, but since the opening of “Discovering Chimpanzees” all of the schools and groups in the area have been calling them. Furthermore, the success of this exhibit has allowed for the Children’s Museum to line up a series of additional educational and exciting traveling exhibits. These include an upcoming and highly anticipated “A Celebration of Canada’s North: An Arctic Adventure” and “Dinosaurs Alive!”.

[1] Edward P. Alexander and Mary Alexander, Museums in Motion (New York, Altamira Press: 2008), 168

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