Rethinking Family Learning

When “family learning” comes up in museum literature, it often references how parents with young children interact in museums.   Our field has done a lot of research on how parents or caregivers spend time exploring exhibits with their 0-12 year olds, but it’s interesting to think about what happens after kids grow up and identify themselves as families visiting as adults.

When do families stop being “families” and just become “visitors?”

A recent holiday trip home to Florida has left my mind spinning around this subject. It all started with a trip to the Orange County Regional History Center with my dad and little brother (who is currently in college).

A little background: I’m from Orlando, Florida.  Born and raised.

When I reveal this bit of information about myself, most people assume that I was raised in a theme park. To be fair, I did spend more time at Disney and Sea World as a kid than the average American, but I also spent a lot of time visiting local museums and attractions with my father. We would generally visit the Orlando Science Center, the Orange County Historical Society and the other usual childhood haunts like Chuckie Cheese, Showbiz Pizza Place, or a local attraction called the Mystery Fun House.  What I remember most about going to all of these destinations was the time with my father, not necessarily the learning experiences that occurred on the trips. Personally, all of these places had an incredibly positive effect on me, so much so that I ended up working at the Orlando Science Center, the Orange County History Society, and Orlando Museum of Art (I also worked at Universal Studios – so there is a little theme park in me too, and a subject matter of a different post).

Fast forward to last week:  My dad, brother and I were looking for something interesting to do during our holiday week that didn’t involve shopping.  I quickly looked up my old favorites on my phone, and saw that there was an interesting show at the Orange County Regional History Center (previously Orange County Historical Society) showcasing the Highwaymen, a group of African American artists in Florida who sold oil paintings door to door. I was intrigued and hadn’t been to the museum in over ten years. It had since moved to the old Orange County Court House in Downtown Orlando, and we all thought it would be fun to go. My dad had been to the new destination with my youngest sister as a chaperon, but he couldn’t really remember what was there because during his visit he had to child wrangle more than explore.

A little background: My dad (Mark) is a computer person (and in his own words, he finds computer solutions for the government), and my brother (Dylan) is a political science major at the University of Central Florida.  Neither of them are in the arts, but we all have a unique Stafne curiosity, a ridiculous fascination of maps and interesting artifacts, and like to pose in funny pictures.

Before we entered the museum, we found it necessary to document our trip:

Dad & Dylan

Me helping wrangle a gator - I actually know how to wrangle a gator, a skill I don't use too frequently in NYC.

We entered the History Center at 3:30 in the afternoon, and had nearly the entire building to ourselves.  The museum had four floors of exhibitions, and we decided to tackle them all.

Now, I haven’t been in a museum as a visitor with my father for over 20 years, but he has visited me while I working at various museums. I once even facilitated my little brother’s 6th birthday party at the Orlando Science Center, where I did an animal show for his friends.  That was 14 years ago.  So needless to say, I was interested to see how we would all explore the museum together.

As soon as we started walking through an immersive exhibition about prehistoric Florida, old family habits started up and I felt like the museum was designed solely for our own amusement.  Around every bend was something interesting that we could each relate to in our own way.  Because each of us has experiences with the subject matter, we could bring in our own knowledge about Florida history, which is our unique, personal history too.

My dad was able to talk about objects in an aerospace exhibition (he used to work for Marin Marietta and Harris); My brother seemed the most intrigued by an exhibition about the role of African Americans in Central Florida and slowed us down to read all the text; and I started a critical discussion of the term “Disnification” in an exhibition devoted to the founding of Walt Disney World in the 70’s (A topic I have mixed feelings about. I love Disney).  We also spent some time looking deeply at the Highwayman exhibition which seemed to capture the essence of what Florida is really like to a native (quite often depressing, hot, and stormy).  I was surprised at the great observations my brother and father made about the art, and they liked hearing my take on the exhibition because I work in an art museum.

We also spent a lot of time just having fun.  Posing for pictures at the various stations, and working together to make certain interactive exhibits work.

Me getting into the spirit of Florida Cattlemen. Yes, there is a loose prop rifle to pose with- this is WILD Florida!

The best part was roaming around an old courthouse room that has been maintained where we could act out our legal dreams.

Dad prosecuting Dylan - something that happens at home, but much more fun in a real courthouse.

The trip was definitely fun, mostly because we were together, as adults, but also as family.

As visitors have been entering the Rubin Museum this week, I’ve been trying to notice if they are in a family group, and how they interact together on the gallery floors.  I think that this could be a great topic for research: who do you consider a family group?  Does designating a trip as a “family trip” give it a different flavor than just visiting with your spouse or taking mom out for a lunch and stroll through the gallery? When we produce programs for adults, do we consider their family dynamic?

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