“Is it real?” Engaging young children and families with handling objects
Imagine you are strolling in a museum. At the corner of a gallery, there is a table with some objects. Two friendly volunteers (says on their lanyards) greet you with a big smile and invite you to touch those objects — when we could before the pandemic.
This wooden stick catches your eye. You pick it up. It feels smooth, certainly weights a bit, a little shorter than your lower arm. The following conversation is typical on this occasion.
Visitor: What’s this?
Volunteer: What do you think this is?
Visitor: Hmm, is it a weapon?
Volunteer: Good guess! It’s a Fijian throwing club, or a “Ula”. It used to be a hunting tool.
The conversation usually won’t stop here. What would you ask next?
Museums have been applying diverse practices to engage visitors, one of the examples is to enable object handling. During my volunteering experience at museums using handling objects, a question appears frequently: “is it real?” People want to know whether they’re touching “real” stuff in museums. This has made me curious about what visitors mean by “real” and if touching “real” objects matters in their visits. Caroline Marcus also shared her childhood story in For Arts’ Sake podcast, the excitement of seeing the “real chair” on her trip to Shakespeare’s birthplace. In this article, I will share my research and its findings in how family visitors engage with the sense of “real” when handling objects.
After starting a work placement at the National Maritime Museum (NMM) in April 2018, I had access to the handling collection, researching and testing some settings and objects for the galleries; and that was later developed into a case study for my Master’s dissertation. The research project investigated family visitors’ perspectives of handling authentic and inauthentic objects at NMM. Two research questions helped frame this research:
1) What are family audiences’ perspectives of handling the authentic and inauthentic objects?;
2) Does the authenticity of the handling objects influence families’ experience? Are there other elements that influence families’ interpretation?
The National Maritime Museum is a leading maritime museum in the UK and also enjoys a reputation for welcoming family audiences. NMM has opened four new galleries as part of the Endeavour project since September 2018, aiming at presenting Britain’s maritime history in a more coherent way for visitors; each gallery has its new handling collection to engage audiences in daily visits. My research project involved 4 objects from the handling collection of the Pacific Encounters gallery, including an authentic object (the throwing club, comes with a Certificate of Authenticity), modern-made objects made by master makers (the Tapa cloth and the stick chart), and a replica object (the plastic breadfruit).
I interviewed two museum staff members who were both working on the Endeavour Project, which focused on diversifying the museum’s audiences and improving the accessibility of the museum. The main data collection process was that I invited two families, both local to NMM, to come to the museum for an object handling experience. The conversations around “real” among the family members were finally not as many as I expected — which is also a big takeaway for myself that to stay open when researching the real world.
“Real” or “not real”
Both children and adults showed their interest in the authenticity of the four objects. However, what they meant by “real” could be various. According to the two families, the word “real” can be defined within three aspects.
First, the sensory aspect. 5-year-old Kate (pseudonym) chose the throwing club, the Tapa cloth and the stick chart to be “real”, because “they feel real”, and the breadfruit “is just a plastic lemon”, even though I had explained that the Tapa cloth and the stick chart were made recently. The replica breadfruit prompted conversations on the sense of taste:
Bob (5, pseudonym): But what flavour does it (breadfruit) have?
Mother: Perhaps it tastes like firm bananas.
Bob: Oh?! I eat bananas.
Then is the contextualized aspect –visitors intend to put the objects into context, by using the word “real”. For example, in terms of weapons, audiences might mean “has it been used? Was it used in the battle?” After knowing that the throwing club was made by Fijian people in a certain time period, proved by the Certificate of Authenticity, Bob’s mum actively picked it up and said, “So it’s a real one.”
The contextualized aspect also indicates audiences’ interest in the stories and histories behind the objects. Visitors might ask “Where did you get it?” as an opening for them to get to know the objects. Kate touched the stick chart and asked me, “did you swim in the sea and get these shells?”, which showed that she was also curious about the object’s journey to the museum.
The functional aspect also helps define “real”, especially for the children in my research. I asked Bob to choose the objects that he thought were real, as he hadn’t mentioned “real” in the whole session. The reasons that he gave were all strongly related to how to use the objects:
The throwing club: you can hit creatures with this.
The Tapa cloth: maybe you can wear it.
The stick chart: because it’s a map.
The replica breadfruit: it’s just a plastic toy, you can’t eat it.
The popular objects don’t have to be “real”
People react differently to objects when exploring what they are. Here the replica breadfruit was obviously a plastic replica fruit for visitors. It generally received the least attention and respect from audiences among the four objects. Some visitors tended to squish the replica breadfruit, perhaps because of its shape, size and material. People probably considered the plastic object to be durable and easily replaced. However, as for the objects that visitors thought to be “real”, like the throwing club, Kate’s mother was surprised by being able to handle a real object in the museum. She reminded her child to remember the name of the throwing club several times.
Nevertheless, the children tended to interact with the objects regardless of authenticity — they showed fairly equal interest before and after knowing the throwing club was “real”. Children haven’t learned as many rules and norms of society as adults so that their learning processes will mostly follow their human instinct. Adults may come with the perception that museums are sites for conserving original objects which they’re not allowed to touch, but children won’t stop their exploration by this kind of rule. Therefore, while adults value the authenticity of an object, what children value can be different.
Children thus used their criteria to choose their favourite objects at the end of their object handling sessions, and those criteria weren’t relevant to authenticity. Bob took the throwing club as his favourite, because “you can smash people, bang!”; Kate liked something “nice” and she chose the shells on the stick chart. Kate’s mother chose the Tapa cloth: “I appreciate people working hard, modelling, drawing… I can see the hard work from it.” As for the least favourite ones, Bob chose the replica breadfruit: “If I smashed it, I can break it into pieces.”; Kate disliked the rough fabric feeling of the Tapa cloth.
Enabling object handling is trending in heritage sites as it enhances visitor’s participation and makes the sites less intimidating. It also encourages conversation between museums and visitors. Because of the traditional image of having authentic objects in museums, physical interaction with objects may challenge visitors, making them hesitate and wonder “How can I treat this?”. Meanwhile, visitors will also challenge the museum’s authority by asking questions and making personal interpretations. Therefore, getting to know the audiences and how they might react can help museums find out the various needs and expectations of their audiences, to share museums’ expertise and authority with them.
Teresa Cisneros shares her views of diversifying museums and culture in the For Arts’ Sake podcast that:
“Things like who’s holding the power? Whose expertise? Why this over something else? Where is the money going? … a different way of working with whether it’s objects or whether it’s how we curate.”
The four objects are now in the handling trolley for the Pacific Encounters gallery, which tells the story of the life and adventures of Captain Cook through a different lens. NMM involves diverse perspectives of colonisation, particularly from Pacific culture, working with a Pacific community group throughout their curatorial journey and looking at the history with more than one interpretation. My further questions are, how to describe this collaboration? What decisions have been made and how did the museum and the community group make them? Does the collaboration continue after the gallery opens?
This is the story of me and handling objects. Hope we can soon go back to museums and galleries and perhaps touch some objects.
Bin Guo has a background in education, currently a PhD candidate at UCL Institute of Education, looking at how young children and their families interact and learn when visiting a museum together. She has been volunteering at several museums and galleries in London since 2016. She used to work as a family programme producer, working with museums to develop outdoor learning programmes in parks and gardens for children and their families in Hangzhou, China. She sees her future career in higher education and researching museums and galleries. Find her on Instagram: @binwtvguo, Twitter: @BinGuo0801.
 © National Maritime Museum
 © National Maritime Museum