The Rules in Children’s Museums

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Abstract

This article describes and analyzes signage in children’s museums, including how their wording, content, salience, and number are informed by culturally specific assumptions about appropriate ways to communicate with children. The findings show that most museum signage consists of directives that can be split into four categories: rule directives, parenting directives, informational directives, and developmental directives. Because the value that museums place on self-directed exploration makes explicit rules about behavioral expectations seem discordant, rule statements are highly indirect or even absent. The other three types of directives are more direct and explicit because they are more consonant with the assumptions and principles underlying children’s museums’ designs and programming. I propose that this state of affairs can be a source of confusion and anxiety for parents who want their children to behave well but may not be familiar with what this means in the museum context. I argue that because the assumptions about appropriate ways to communicate with children are culturally specific and because strategies for making directives more polite are language-specific, the indirect wording of rule statements may result in a lack of clarity about appropriate behavior. This could make visiting children’s museums uncomfortable for demographic groups who already tend to be underrepresented among visitors, particularly racial and linguistic minorities, single parents, families with several children, and families of lower socioeconomic or educational backgrounds. I suggest ways to improve signage in order to clarify expectations without undermining the principle that museums should be fun and inclusive spaces. This research is based on in-person visits to nine children’s museums and the analysis of online materials from five others.