Children in Museums and Galleries

The latest version of the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ report Children’s Participation in Cultural and Leisure Activities has recently been released. This report shows participation rates in a range of cultural, recreational and sporting activities by children aged 5-14 inclusive. I’ll focus on museum and gallery visitation here, although for comparison I’ve included public libraries and performing arts attendance in following table:

Children’s attendance at cultural venues and events in preceding 12 months (Source: ABS)

This shows that 70% of children aged 5-14 attended at least one library, museum, gallery or performing arts event in the preceding 12 months. Note the figures pertain to activities undertaken outside of school hours, so this does not take into account school visits. The increases in performing arts and museum and gallery attendance are statistically significant, at least when comparing 2012 to 2006.

The following table breaks down the frequency of attendance among participants:

Frequency of attendance (in past 12 months) among participating children (Source: ABS)

Frequency of participation in museums and galleries is comparable with that of performing arts among all age groups, whereas visitation to libraries is more frequent (which makes sense given the nature of library use).

Museum and gallery attendance is not uniform throughout the community, however. Children from non-English speaking countries and non capital city residents are less likely to attend. There are also slight variations according to gender and age bracket, as well as differences by state of residence. The state differences may be at least partly explained by the fact that some states have more of their population concentrated in capital cities than others.

Source: Children’s Participation in Cultural and Leisure Activities, Australia, Apr 2012 (ABS)

It’s hard to compare these figures directly to the ABS figures for adults, as museums and galleries are reported separately for adults. (Recent ABS statistics for museum and gallery visiting are reported here.)

Rising to the “Future Challenge”

Last week was Interpretation Australia’s National Conference, titled Future Challenge. As IA President Sue Hodges said in the opening ceremony, Interpretation faces challenges in the present, as well as the future. Economic downturns lead to budget cuts, which often disproportionately affect funding for interpretive projects and staff. In light of this, how can interpreters adapt to changing circumstances and make a better case for the value they add to natural and cultural heritage?

Our opening and closing keynotes gave two very different perspectives on this issue.

Genevieve Adkins, Director of the Centre for Interpretive Studies at the University of the Highlands and Islands, Scotland, highlighted the importance of interpreters having a solid grasp of the theory that underpins their work. Theory confers rigour, and rigour is necessary for funders and other stakeholders to take interpretation seriously. Judicious application of theory can also lead to better returns on investment in heritage interpretation projects.

For the closing keynote, Dee Madigan, Director of Madigan Communications and probably best known as a regular panellist on ABC’s spin-deconstruction program Gruen Planet, gave an ‘outsider’ perspective on the issues facing interpretation. She highlighted some of the parallels between advertising and interpretation, and how there is common ground in needing to understand the motivations and wants of your target audience.

I’ve prepared a storify of the tweets from Day 1 and Day 3. Day 2 was mostly taken up by field trips to destinations around Regional Victoria – I went to Point Nepean National Park and learned some of the history of the site as a Quarantine Station and later as an Officer Cadet School.

Ships and their passengers en route to Melbourne were held in quarantine at Point Nepean. The station was in use from the mid 1800s until the 1970s.
Quarantine was strict – passengers belongings were fumigated and all passengers had to go through special bathing procedures. Even the mail was fumigated! This case shows equipment used for fumigating mail.

I also gave a presentation based on Chip and Dan Heath’s 2007 book Made to Stick: why some ideas take hold and others come unstuck. In keeping with the Future Challenge theme of the conference, this paper was intended to show how the Heath brothers’ ingredients for ‘sticky’ ideas are a useful checklist for interpreters. Conversely, it shows how the business world is hungry for sticky ideas: are there potential untapped markets for people with interpretive skills?


Shifting the Research Lens

In visitor experience workshops I have frequently pointed out the need to question our cultural assumptions – if we’ve grown up always visiting museums and heritage sites, it can be hard to know how our institutions come across from the point of view of someone for whom visiting is an alien concept. But let’s take a step further back for a moment – what assumptions and unspoken rules are embedded throughout our “Western” culture?

Recently I participated in a doctoral research project by Dr Lorraine Muller called “Shifting the Lens: Indigenous Research into Mainstream Australian Culture”. The whole idea of the project is to study mainstream Australian culture from an Indigenous perspective, and to examine those assumptions of the culture that seem alien from an Indigenous perspective. I volunteered as someone who could speak from their experience of being a ‘mainstream Australian’, and who was willing to share my understanding of the basis of some of these assumptions.

It was tricky at times, especially trying to explain why things such as Spirituality and connection to Country – central tenets of the Indigenous world view – have such low priority in mainstream culture.  Almost by definition, they are concepts I’ve given very little thought. Others were a little easier to conceptualise, such as why we see Individualism as such a positive attribute (I suspect it has roots in Protestant theology, which, as I understand it, prioritises the individual relationship with God through scripture rather than liturgy).

Since I participated in this research project, I’ve been giving “Indigenous-mainstream” relations a fair bit of thought. As there are stages of colonisation, so there are stages of de-colonisation. So where do I fit in to this decolonisation process? I consider myself relatively ignorant of Indigenous culture and world-view. But how do I learn more? I have fears of asking inappropriate questions, saying the wrong thing, or inadvertently causing offence. And I suspect I’m far from the only one. But we need to collectively work past this barrier if we are to work closer towards reconciliation. For this reason I’ve found being involved in Lorraine’s research personally enriching.

I didn’t realise the extent to which the unspoken rules, hidden assumptions and different world views were such a barrier to Indigenous people ‘getting on’ in mainstream Australia, and I wonder if this is the root cause of so many well-meaning initiatives that have failed to improve the life circumstances of so many Indigenous Australians. On one level this is disheartening, because such fundamental mutual incomprehension makes the barriers to reconciliation seem so insurmountable. But on the other hand, knowing the barriers are there might make it that bit easier to address them.

I would encourage other people who self identify as non-Indigenous ‘mainstream’. Australians to consider participating in Lorraine’s research. This is actually her second PhD – in her first she documented the theory that informs Indigenous Australians in the helping professions, Indigenous Australian Social-Health Theory. This second PhD has arisen from the first, where participants identified that there are some aspects of mainstream culture that they would like to know about. A PhD presents a respectful way to ask these questions. If you’re interested, I’d encourage you to contact her via

Dr Lorraine Muller
BSocSc-BSW Hons, PhD
PhD (2nd) Candidate
School Medicine and Dentistry
James Cook University

She is particularly interested in speaking to people in the medical / health professions, as well as young adults.

Review: Eastern State Penitentiary

I very nearly didn’t visit Eastern State Penitentiary. But I’m very glad I did.

It was the first Saturday in August, on my last day in Philadelphia. I had spent the morning trekking around the Philadelphia Museum of Art (yes, the one from Rocky – and people actually do train on those steps in the mornings before the museum opens). So I was feeling pretty museum-ed out. And I had to be on a bus to New York later that afternoon. AND the weather didn’t look like it was going to hold out and I didn’t want to get stuck in yet another East Coast summer downpour. But I decided to go anyway, and was pleasantly surprised at the quality and variety of their visitor experiences, which had been simply and sympathetically achieved.

Eastern State was built in 1829, when it was widely thought that it was a good idea to completely isolate prisoners so that they had a chance to silently reflect on their misdeeds and become truly ‘penitent’. Over the years the prison was expanded and solitary confinement was eventually phased out. It was in use until relatively recently –  the last prisoners were transported out in 1970. Over the next couple of decades, the site fell into disrepair, but from the late 1980s onwards was gradually rehabilitated and opened to the public.

A view down a typical cell block at ESP. These cell blocks all radiated from a central zone in a hub-and-spoke design; additional spokes were added as the prison was expanded.

Site interpretation was through a combination of audiotour and signage.

A group takes advantage of the juxtaposition of seating, signage and audiotour track.

The audiotour used a combination of guided and self-guided tracks that I thought worked quite well. The audioguide was one of the typical select-track-number-to-play types, so in theory you could choose whatever track you wanted whenever. However, the idea was that the first 10 tracks or so took you on a guided tour from the visitor centre around the site so you could get your physical and conceptual bearings.

The final part of the ‘guided’ part of the audiotour was called ‘Voices from Eastern State Penitentiary’, and it was paired with images displayed along the cell block. The idea was that each image was paired with oral history quotes from people with links to the site – former inmates or guards. The text above each image was the first line of spoken words associated with the picture, so you were clear what audio went with what picture. It was a simple but effective way of pairing sound and pictures that were being presented independently of one another.

From there you could choose from a further 20 tracks or so peppered around the site. On the site map you were given, these additional tracks were organised by topic (art installations, famous prisoners, etc), so you could follow particular areas of interest if you wanted to.

For the most part, ESP is preserved as a ruin rather than restored. This section, which you encounter early in the ‘orientation’ section of the auditour, is a recreation of what the penitentiary would have looked like in its early years of operation.

There were also face-to-face “Hands on History” stations around the site, where staff would do brief (10 minutes or so) demonstrations at regular intervals. I didn’t take part in any of these as I was more interested in doing things at my own pace, but these sessions appeared to be popular with family visitors in particular.

However, while ESP does cater for families (those with older children at least – I think they discourage younger children because of the subject matter), they don’t shy away from providing more confronting topics for adults. Some of the audiotour tracks are only accessible by getting the track numbers from reading certain graphic panels. As well as frankly presenting episodes from the site’s past, they presented interpretations and artworks that went to the heart of present-day issues.

The bar chart on the left shows the dramatic increase in the USA’s prison population from 1970 to the present day. The bar chart on the right shows that the USA imprisons more of its population than any other country in the world – at tremendous cost.
“GTMO” – one of the several art installations at ESP. The contents of the cage are the possessions that are allowed an inmate in Camp X-ray in Guantanamo Bay.

The other thing that struck me about this site is that it came across as very visitor-focused: a good variety of interpretive media, clear orientation, friendly staff, recognition of visitors’ intelligence. Upon departure one of the guides at the entrance was even so kind as to direct me to the nearest bus stop to take me back across town. A little thing maybe, but it finished my visit on a high note and helped make ESP one of the unexpected highlights of my visit to the US.