Finding Place and Feeling Culture in the Universalized Spaces ...

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Children’s museums are inspired by universalist approaches to child development, learning, and the “ideal” childhood. Assumptions that inform this approach to museum design include, for example, that children learn best through play, that children should be grouped by age because activities should be developmentally appropriate, and that parents or other adult caretakers should be involved in children’s play. In addition, children should have dedicated spaces for learning that are designated by design elements such as vivid colors, cartoonlike characters, and bounded spaces that maintain clear lines of sight so that children are visible at all times. Implementing these assumptions as design features leads to children’s museums that tend to resemble one another regardless of their geographic or cultural location, raising the following questions that guide this research—if children’s museums are designed to reflect universal beliefs about children, how can they also convey a sense of place or cultural connection? How can children’s museums distinguish themselves when they are designed according to universalist ideas of child development? This article argues that incorporating more local content and design features makes the children’s museum more compatible to a broader range of social values and therefore more inclusive of a broader range of visitors. It also enhances the educational goals of the museum. Based on museum observations made in seven different countries, this article will describe several successful examples of ways that children’s museums have introduced cultural and geographic distinctiveness.