Question of the Week: Do boys and girls enjoy different museum exhibits/items?
By Stacy Hackner, on 26 March 2014
This is actually a more complicated question than one would think, especially considering the recent controversies regarding “pink is for girls, blue is for boys” toys, the Independent’s refusal to review children’s books aimed at a particular gender, and Waterstones‘ refusal to sell such books. It’s also an interesting question to ask as most of us would consider museums fairly gender-neutral spaces. According to research, museum visitors are more likely to be female, educated, older, and white — but that’s a fairly narrow demographic. Clearly there are many visitors who are male or other genders, not in (or after) higher education, young, and of varying ethnicities. There are also two competing (but false) ideologies: that girls would prefer museums because they like quiet learning and being indoors, and that boys will prefer museums because they can interact with objects and tend to like “the gross stuff”. Studies from the 1990s showed that while boys and girls both visited all exhibits at a science museum, they interacted with the exhibits in different ways and for different amounts of time – i.e. boys preferred the water jets and girls preferred face paint. (What these activities have to do with science is unclear.) The researchers showed that children display “typical gender roles” when playing and advise museums to design displays accordingly. Another article encourages girls to visit science museums because they’re an informal and thus less intimidating environment than the classroom. However, it’s important to consider these articles in the context of the views of gender held at the time – I’d hope we’re less stereotypical these days.
In my experience in the Petrie and the Grant, I’ve found both of these stereotypes completely untrue. All kids who come to the Grant like “the gross stuff”, or as they’re properly termed, the wet specimens. I’ve had both boys and girls come up to ask me questions about dinosaurs and bones and worms and mummies and jewelry and the jar of moles. Both boys and girls want to dress up in the Petrie’s reproduction Egyptian clothing, especially the loincloth. Teenage boys, including a Scouts troop I engaged with, are particularly fascinated by the baculum — but then, so were a duo of thirty-year-old women. Above all, kids of all genders are natural scientists: curious, inquisitive, and unafraid to ask crazy questions. Children who visit museums are happier and, in a country where most museums are free, it’s always worthwhile for them to come and explore.
Falk, JH. 2009. Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.
Ramey-Gassert, L, HJ Walberg III, and HJ Walberg. 1994. Reexamining connections: Museums as science learning environments. Science Education, Volume 78, Issue 4, pages 345–363.