Collaborative study to revolutionise the design of tomorrow’s museums

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The Powerhouse Museum in Sydney.

By U2B Staff 

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More often than not, the design of museum spaces is such that exhibits to engage pre-schoolers are kept in spaces dedicated to visitors of that age. 

With nothing to pique their interest, parents accompanying their children for a day of learning at the museum will sit back as their children stand enthralled at these child-friendly displays.

But a new collaborative study in Australia has raised a compelling argument that could change the design of tomorrow’s museum spaces. Rather than segment displays according to age-appropriateness, the study says an intergenerational approach creates a more lasting impact on both adult and child.

This means museum curators should include something for everyone in every exhibit, ripening the likelihood of conversation and creating an experience the entire family can enjoy.

“Our research found that children and parents learn together when their curiosity is sparked by the same exhibits and they talk to each other about what they see,” Macquarie University Associate Professor Sheila Degotardi said in The Lighthouse.

According to the university publication, the Deputy Head of Research in Macquarie’s Department of Educational Studies led the team of early childhood academics involved in the study conducted in partnership with the Powerhouse and Maritime Museums in Sydney’s Pyrmont.

The Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences and Museums Victoria were also important partners in the research.


Degotardi says the research was initiated by the Australian Maritime Museum’s former Head of Learning Dr Lynda Kelly who wanted to find ways the museum could better engage young children. 

“The museums were all interested in finding out what it’s like to be a young child in a museum,” she explained.

“Museums want to create lifelong museum learners who will keep visiting museums and, eventually, bring their own children to museums too. That’s why it’s important to get children coming in from when they are really young.”

For this to happen, the design of museum spaces must consider the interest levels of those of all ages, as well as how an exhibit would impact the group, rather than the individual.

Museum design
Museum exhibits that enable intergenerational fun & activity create a better experience for the family. Source: Powerhouse Museum

But tradition dictates that museums design educational programmes for very young children according to individual capacity, and not as a kind of social activity. While play-based learning works, in a museum setting, it fails to consider the engagement levels of the adult accompanying the child.

“That (play-based learning) engages the children, but not so much the parents, who often sit back and watch,” said Degotardi.

For the research, GoPros were attached to the chests of children and parents from 18 different family groups with at least one child younger than school age. Each family visited one of three museums and explored two exhibits at the museums, spending as long as they wanted in each space. 

Researchers recorded them from a distance and interviewed the parents after the experience. Conversations between parent and child were also analysed, with researchers taking note of what engaged each group and how they responded to the different parts of each exhibition.

What they discovered created a few surprises. 


At the transport exhibit in the Powerhouse Museum, for example, children and parents climbed up into a signal box overlooking life-size aeroplane exhibits and began making connections between the details of what they could see in the box with the life-size exhibits.

“They would turn around and look out of the signal box at the plane hanging from the ceiling, and compare these to the models,” Australian National Maritime Museum’s Programmes Coordinator Annalice Creighton said. 

A model ship display, meanwhile, sparked stories around its intricate detail. A soundscape in the Eora gallery triggered a family’s memory of their holiday to Kakadu.

“Being able to see things from different angles and perspectives helps young children to notice detail,” Creighton said.

This also helps the child’s learning process.

Museum design
The Macquarie study looked at what it was like to be a young child at a museum. Source: Macquarie University/The Lighthouse

Degotardi pointed out that young children learn best through social interactions. 

“Those interactions stretch children’s thinking. They have opportunities to explain what they know, and to hear about other people’s ideas,” Degotardi said.

Additionally, the interaction also keeps parents engaged.

“People think you need to simplify things for very young children – but we found that was not the case.

“We found plenty of ways that museums can design spaces with all kinds of visitors in mind, including both parents and children and people of all ages, and that’s going to be the most effective way to engage all of them and to get people to stay and to come back again.”


According to Macquarie, this evidence-based research will prompt the museums to look past traditions in the design of future museum spaces.

These new spaces will include exhibitions that are appealing in a more intergenerational way to inspire and create the next generation of museum visitors.

“Making a space that a toddler will adore but a 12-year-old will also be intrigued by and that Dad and grandma like too – how they can all play together is where the magic is, and that’s the future of museums,” sais Powerhouse Museum Programmes Head Lily Katakouzinos.