History Of Children’s And Educational Museums Essay

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Children’s museums represent important sites for learning that can operate either in conjunction with or independently from schools. Their hands-on approach and play-based inquiry have the potential to draw students into learning in ways that are not as easily achieved in the public schools.

The idea of the museum as an educational force is taken for granted today by most educators and museum personnel. Yet it is a relatively modern concept dating from the second half of the nineteenth century, one that came to be realized in 1899 with the founding of the first children’s museum in the United States, the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, and with the organization in 1905 of the first American educational museum to be sponsored by a school system, the Educational Museum of the St. Louis Public Schools. This entry looks at the history and contributions of children’s educational museums.

Museum As Educator

The concept of the museum as educator reflected not only a new approach to learning, but also a new approach to the organization of knowledge. No longer a “cabinet of curiosities,” the museum in the United States increasingly became a popular educator. The growth and development of children’s and educational museums and their association with the schools was a logical extension of this concept. Implicit in the idea of the museum as educator was the notion of the museum as a “mass” educator. More than any other formal educational institution during the late nineteenth century (including libraries), the museum was perceived as being capable of teaching all classes of society.

It was the great international expositions that were primarily responsible (during the nineteenth century) for popularizing the idea of the museum as a means of mass education. The Great London Exhibition of 1851 was the first of these “world fairs.” Its purpose was to promote and encourage English industry by comparing it with that of the other major industrial nations of the world. The Centennial Exposition held in Philadelphia in 1876 was the first international exposition to be held in the United States. Not only did the Centennial Exposition encourage the extensive development of industrial and natural history exhibits, but it also demonstrated their educational value to a large cross-section of the population.

The Centennial Exposition directly contributed to the establishment of several major museums throughout the United States, including the United States National Museum (Smithsonian Institution) and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Later expositions (including the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago and the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis) also contributed to museum development in the United States.

By the 1890s there was an increasing realization, however, that a museum differed from an exposition or fair in both its aims and methods. The exposition was primarily concerned with the promotion of industry and commerce, whereas the museum had as its primary purpose the teaching of a lesson inherent in an exhibit. Both museum curators and educators in general became increasingly aware of the need for people to learn not only through the written and spoken word, but also through objects.

School Museums

The possibilities of the museum as a vehicle for object lessons, and as an integral part of the curriculum of the schools, is most clearly evident in the work of the American educator and philosopher, John Dewey (1859–1952). He argued that a small museum should be an integral part of every school. However unfeasible the idea of the school museum was, it did not die. Two highly successful extensions of the idea were developed: the children’s museum and the traveling school museum.

The Brooklyn Children’s Museum was originally conceived as a pedagogical museum where teachers could come see displayed apparatus and other materials that they could use in their classrooms. It was soon realized, however, that it would be impossible to provide teachers with the types of apparatus and materials on display. Therefore, a new purpose for the children’s museum soon developed. It would be not simply a repository of pedagogical ideas and practices, but also a vital center of learning that would supplement the instruction of the public schools and also represent an important alternative for teaching, instruction, and learning. The potential of the children’s museum to improve the quality of life for children living in the city was quickly realized.

Under the leadership of Anna Billings Gallup (1872–1956), the Children’s Museum became an active educational center that helped children with their daily school studies and suggested new subjects for thought and pursuit in their leisure hours. By 1911, the average daily attendance had jumped to 160,000. Originally, the museum was primarily concerned with awakening an interest in nature. Throughout the museum, storytelling exhibits were displayed in cases at the proper height for children and were simply labeled. Soon, realistic miniature dioramas peopled with costumed dolls were created in an attempt to make the past come alive in the History Room.

By the 1920s, community groups such as the Women’s Auxiliary were using the History Room and its miniature scenes for educational experiments in Americanization: Lessons were developed with the express goal of encouraging civic and national spirit among immigrant children. It was hoped that the Americanization program would stimulate discussions in the children’s homes and even encourage their foreign parents to visit the museum—especially to see their own children perform in the plays that were being presented. Other special features such as a library, daily lectures, clubs, games, the publication of the Children’s Museum Bulletin, and the loan of materials to schools and the children themselves, helped make the museum a dynamic educational force in the local neighborhood and community.

Broader Scope

Unlike the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, the Educational Museum of the St. Louis Public Schools was not neighborhood oriented but instead was primarily concerned with distributing supplementary educational materials such as lantern slides, natural history specimens, and objects from foreign countries throughout the public school system. “Bring the world to the child” was the museum’s motto. The idea was clearly an outgrowth and a continuation of the spirit of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition.

Officially opened on April 11, 1905, the museum is commonly recognized as being the first audiovisual program in a city school system in the United States. Many of the ideas and approaches developed as part of the curriculum of the Educational Museum closely paralleled the types of activities John Dewey and his colleagues had put into effect during the late 1890s at the University of Chicago Laboratory School. The assistant superintendent, Carl Rathman; the museum’s curator, Amelia Meissner; and the staff managed to find a means by which to practically implement a “hands-on curriculum” of the type that Dewey was advocating throughout an extensive urban school system.

Like the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, the Educational Museum of the St. Louis Public Schools recognized the potential of the museum to help the child to better understand the community and world in which they lived. Efforts to integrate the work of the museum and the schools increased during the early decades of the twentieth century. In 1911, for example, the trustees of the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago created a traveling museum, which contained over 1,000 cases of botanical, geological, zoological, and economic specimens.

Other museums, such as the Commercial Museum of Art in Philadelphia, the Cleveland Museum of Art, and the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, not only sent exhibits out to the schools but also had teachers stationed in the museums who were paid by their school boards to give talks and conduct tours for school children. By the beginning of World War I, museums and the public schools had combined their forces in the development of a new type of curriculum emphasizing visual instruction and object teaching.

A New Era

By the end of World War I, it was clear that school and pedagogical museums were not particularly powerful movements in American education. In large part their function was taken over by the field of instructional technology. Museums such as the Brooklyn Children’s Museum and the Indianapolis Children’s Museum continued their efforts, however, becoming important educational institutions and community centers in their regions. By the mid-1970s there were just a small number handful of children’s museums across the country.

Among the most visible were the Exploratorium, a “hands-on museum of science, art, and human perception” in San Francisco and the Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia, which has been encouraging learning through play, not just for children of all socioeconomic backgrounds, but for their teachers, parents, and caregivers as well. During the late 1970s, there developed a renewed interest in the establishment of children’s museums, and by the late 1990s, there were approximately 300 such institutions in the United States.

The power of the children’s museum, and much of its promise in years to come, is as a popular educator that integrates concrete experiences with science, history, and art. Increasingly, many of these activities will take place online, either in a child’s home or at a desk at school. As a result, the role of the children’s museum as a developer of innovative curriculum and as a mass educator becomes even more important.


  1. Farmer, D. W. (1995). Children take learning into their own hands. Childhood Education, 71(3), 168–169.
  2. Gardner, H. (1992). Howard Gardner on psychology and youth museums: Toward an education for understanding. Hand to Hand, 6(3), 1–6.
  3. Marsh, C. (1987). The Discovery Room: How it all began. Journal of Museum Education, 12(2), 3–5, 13.
  4. Provenzo, E. F., Jr. (1979). The Educational Museum of the St. Louis Public Schools. Missouri Historical Society Bulletin, 35(3), 147–153.
  5. Zucker, B. F. (1987). Children’s museums, zoos and discovery rooms: An international reference guide. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

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