An Early Museum Visit

I cheated.

My Weekly Museum Visits project required me to visit a new museum every week. These parameters did not mean I constantly needed to find a museum that had just opened; rather, I had to visit a museum that was new to me, one I had not been to before.

When I visited Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa (a historic house of worship that also serves as the local archaeology museum for San Luis Obispo, California) in December 2010, I counted this site as a new museum (one of several during that week of vacation with my family). It was not until months later that it occurred to me that, since I was well aware I had been there as a two-year-old, it should not have counted as a new museum.

Back at my parents’ house, I looked for pictures from my visit to the mission, but, unfortunately, none appear to exist – my parents are not diligent (obsessive) photographers like I am. So I asked my mother and father (earlier in 2012) to describe what they remembered from their 1984 and 2010 visits. Their memories of the first visit were vague, but unlike me, they did remember both visits.

From the first visit, my mother remembered “something that had been the bedroom of the friar… a primitive room… the little bedroom” and “some of the artifacts.” Part of the reason she remembered so little is that “you don’t linger as long with a two-and-a-half or three-year-old.”

When recalling the visit from a year and a half ago, my mother mentioned seeing “all the same stuff” from the 1984 visit as well as “more rooms, more stuff.” She also remembered peeking into one room where a church service was beginning or ending.

Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa

Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa

She mentioned a room with a black dress that was worn by women at funerals. Which visit this memory came from, she could not remember. When I told her I remembered the black dress too, that I have a photo of it, she realized she must have seen it during the 2010 visit.

My father’s memories are blurred. He listed, from the 2010 visit, “small rooms, horseshoes, nails, books and diaries, a gift shop.”

As for myself, I do not remember anything about visiting the mission as a young child. Similarly, when I taught three-year-olds at a museum-based preschool, I often marveled at the fact that these children would later have few concrete memories about these early school experiences – yet everything I was doing could nonetheless have a lasting impact.

The children were developing important emerging literacy and math skills. They were gaining a sense of phonemic awareness with every seemingly nonsensical rhyming game and song. Every picture book we read to the class reinforced the structure of a story (beginning, middle, and end). These elements are building blocks for learning to read. The children’s recognition and creation of patterns (green, yellow, green, yellow, green, yellow) would one day help them learn math. My task was to find countless opportunities to incorporate these and other activities, and to make them fun.

My job was also to model good behavior: using words just as we wanted the children to do when angry or frustrated, using polite words (please, thank you), requesting things in complete sentences, taking turns, respecting others’ bodies and personal space. And then there were basic life skills the children were learning, like how to manipulate scissors, zip up their own jackets, and work out an argument with a friend while playing together.

Teaching three-year-olds may look like “just baby-sitting” or “just playing” in the same way that dancers make their routines look graceful and easy. In fact, whether a teacher is delivering a lesson plan he or she has worked on for weeks or is finding teachable moments in a child’s spontaneous behavior, everything is deliberate, and deliberately made to be fun and playful for the children.

As a museum-centered program, we also taught museum manners (and as regular museum visitors, our little ones were better at not touching objects than are many adults!). If you are imagining a gaggle of bored preschoolers being dragged on a 90-minute fine arts tour, replace that image in your head with one of kids sitting on the floor under a painting, passing around an object, and staying just long enough for everyone to have a turn to help make up a story about what is happening in the painting. Or picture children posing like animals in a natural history museum as they learn the words for carnivores and herbivores. By making museums and their treasures intellectually accessible at a three-year-old level, we, hopefully, helped instill a lifelong love of museums.


October’s blog theme is Children and Museums.

About Laura

Paralegal with Master of Arts in Teaching in Museum Education, frequent museum visitor, based in Washington, DC. I care about what museums can do, both in terms of public offerings and internal practices, to make the world a better place. I blog about museum education ("informed"), the social work of museums ("humane"), and visitor experience ("citizenry").
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2 Responses to An Early Museum Visit

  1. Carol says:

    Spoken like a true museum educator!

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