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Bowdoin’s Museums Host Lots of Little Ones

In The Arctic Museum

by William Logan, Mildred Jones, and Judy Higbea

Pre-schoolers who visit The Peary- MacMillan Arctic Museum for guided tours are 3-year-olds (in groups of six to eight) and 4- and 5-year-olds (in groups up to ten or twelve). All have adults chaperoning them on their half-hour visits.

The 3-year-oIds’ concept of the arctic usually is limited to the North Pole — the place where Santa Claus and polar bears live. They may have seen picture books of Eskimos and igloos. The limited impressions they bring are cut and dried: all Eskimos live in snow igloos all the time and polar bears are everywhere in the arctic.

The 4- and 5-year olds, however, are more curious, spontaneous, and full of imagination. They readily answer questions, try out new vocabulary words, and even welcome explanations. At times they may ask their own questions and then appear indifferent to the docent’s response. They simply may be practicing the art of query.

The Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum first opened on the campus of Bowdoin College in 1967 to honor the arctic explorations of Rear Admiral Robert E. Peary and Rear Admiral Donald B. MacMillan. Both were Bowdoin alumni. Pre-schoolers cannot comprehend the struggles of these expeditions but do have passing interest in the huge sledge (a solidly built sled that moves on ice) that actually went to the Pole, and in the ship models. They relate to the fur parka and are intrigued with the polar bear pants like those that Eskimo men wear.

Before their visits. Fours and Fives often have heard of the polar animals, kayaks, and oomiaks. As they enter one gallery, they are impressed by a large kayak mounted high before them. This provides the perfect opportunity for each child to sit on the floor, “settle into his/ her own kayak,” and using imagination, become an Eskimo paddling away through ice floes. At least for a moment, this technique also harnesses their tendency to wiggle. At the same time, the docent can talk about the kayak customized to fit its owner, and explain that the skin covering is sewn by the owner’s wife.

Children are awed and thrilled by the array of animals mounted high in the front gallery. A mother musk ox and her calf prompt an explanation of how calves are protected within a circle formed by adults whose heads face out. Adults butt the foe with their large, strong heads and vicious-looking curved horns. Suddenly, pre-schoolers can sprout horns, a.k.a their hands, and simulate protecting themselves. A polar bear family, several types of seals, a huge walrus with its funny “teeth” all fascinate the young visitors. Much discussion occurs between them and the docent. A caribou will join the Museum animals soon. It is being mounted in a grazing position which will permit children to appreciate its large rack of antlers.

Later in their visit, children come to arctic birds in a case placed so low they almost feel they could hug the birds. A few species are familiar to some of the children. Our area of Maine has seasonal arctic terns, rare sightings of snowy owls in winter, and eider ducks. This eider family group includes dissimilar-looking parents, a lovable chick, and several eggs. Puffins are popular motifs and the kittiwake looks like a familiar herring gull. Sometimes, a docent will make a face and tell of the fulmar’s nasty habit of spitting fish oil. Eeee-ooooo!

Objects used by families in daily life hold pre-schoolers’ attention briefly. Explanations in this section are most compelling when put into story form. Then, when time and interest permit, the group can stop at the art and sculpture alcove. Soapstone and ivory carvings of bears, people, or miniature objects are actually exhibited below the children’s eye-level, providing another excuse to plop down. Nearby are the tupilaks. Older pre-schoolers really set their imaginations in motion as they ponder these grotesque carvings that traditionally dealt with negative emotions.

The highlight of every visit, however, always is the Touch Box which contains artifacts youngsters may handle with supervision. A variety of tactile impressions are included with the visual ones. Musk ox fur can be rubbed, wooden snow goggles like those in the case can be tried on, a miniature and delicate skin kayak can be examined, and a sealskin yo-yo can be played with. All make our young visitors reluctant to leave. By design, a major goal we hold for these visits is met. Our youngest visitors begin to learn that museums are exciting places to visit.

Basic Techniques for Youngest Audiences

UNDERSTAND developmental characteristics of the age level

BE FLEXIBLE enough to build on their curiosity

ZERO IN only on exhibits or portions of exhibits that they can see and that will grab their interest

INVOLVE them in brief discussions

USE role play to release restlessness and entice emotional rapport with the subject

INCLUDE moments for them to pause and absorb

OFFER information in story form when feasible

REMEMBER that eye-level displays become very personal for them

ENCOURAGE observation of some details

HAVE a hands-on, culminating activity

William Logan is a tour guide at the Arctic Museum. Often, he serves as the Docent for preschool groups. A former classroom teacher and school superintendent, Mr. Logan is an exuberant grandfather.

Mildred Jones, a former kindergarten teacher, brought several classes la the Arctic Museum before becoming a volunteer. Now, a museum collections aide, she participates in new-docent training relating Early Childhood tours to the viewpoint of the consumer.

Judy Higbea is an elementary teaching principal who presented a volunteers’ workshop on Developmental Stages as they pertain to a museum setting. Her expertise has become an essential component of the information used by both new and experienced docents at The Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum.

Logan, William and Jones, Mildred and Higbea, Judy. “Bowdoin’s Museums Host Lots of Little Ones: In The Arctic Museum, Docent Educator 3.1(Winter 1993): 6.

In the Art Museum

 by Helen S. Dube

Lively and playful, friendly and curious, the young visitors step into the large, spacious rotunda as they enter the Bowdoin College Museum of Art in Brunswick, Maine. They are bundles of energy having just clambered off of the lifesize sculptured lions that flank the facade and entrance to the historic Walker Art Building, which houses the Museum of Art collection. The children are fascinated with the large space they encounter and move about the round and expansive room with little inhibition, awestruck by their new surroundings. Alexander, an active five-year-old, points overhead to a female nude allegorical figure in a wall lunette mural of Venice. “Look, that lady must be HOT! She’s standing outside naked,” he exclaims. So begins another Bowdoin museum visit with our youngest audience, the pre-schoolers.

Bowdoin art museum docent Rene Rogers is a devoted fan of these young visitors. She describes our 3-to-5-year-old guests as follows: “Their behavior is usually very good. They are eager and generally very happy about everything. The children love to be told things but they have yet to develop any intellectual inquiry. They believe anything you tell them. They are totally innocent.”

Pre-school visitors generally have few inhibitions. They move with relaxed ease around our large galleries. The rotunda becomes a space full of geometric shapes and sizes. Walking the outline of the curvilinear forms on the rotunda floor turns into a game of follow-the-leader. Twirling around the open rotunda area gives them the opportunity to “feel” the space they encounter. Indeed, touching the textured floor surface satisfies their sensory perceptions. They marvel at the enormous size of the museum setting. Physical activity is a mainstay of their lives.

As they enter the gallery of colonial and federal American portraits, Rene gives them each a colored pipe cleaner. Assisted by several parents and chaperones, the children tie the pipe cleaner around their wrists. Rene asks the children, “whose color pipe cleaner is in this picture?” as she gestures toward one of the paintings. The children, eager to participate, raise their arms declaring with great spontaneity, “I’ve got blue! Look, I found red in his coat,” and so forth. This exercise involves children in looking for basic colors they already know through exploration of new images.

Role playing in an art museum is another very effective tour activity with pre-schoolers. Capitalizing on their physical energy and vivid imagination, Rene has the children pretend they are one of the sitters in the portraits. Rene asks the children to assume the position of the person in the portrait. “How do you feel about yourself?” she asks them.

A painting by John Sloan, Sunday Afternoon in Union Square, includes men and women walking and sitting in a park in spring or summer. Pre-schoolers also enjoy posing as the people in this composition using the hats from our touch baskets. Docents also participate in re-creating this scene by being the leaders of the promenade around the gallery. They encourage everyone to pretend that they smell the flowers in the garden.

Describing how she approaches her pre-school guests, Rene explains that “as a docent, you must demonstrate your enthusiasm for the objects to the children. Use your body to describe things. Gesture! I believe in body language and acting out, whether it’s just making noises or using drama. Tap into what they know, like colors, shapes, and sizes. Only discuss things that they can see in the gallery, and don’t use a five-syllable word when a one-syllable word might do.”

Bowdoin docents approach touring pre-school visitors with the following goals in mind: make the visit a fun experience; get them to explore and want to return to the museum; and teach them to look at, and see, works of art through the use of simple devices like pipe cleaners, hats, or role play.

These can be ambitious objectives for this age group, but, as Rene points out, “you feel successful when you achieve them. Anything more and you spoil their enjoyment. Remember, matching colors or shapes is still teaching them to look. You can’t keep them doing any one thing for too long, however. You must vary activities and the objects they examine.”

All Museum of Art tour groups are asked to wear large name tags. Referring to visitors by name is especially important with 3 to 5-year old guests. They respond well to their names. And, after all, the docent wears a name tag and identifies herself in the beginning of the tour. Name tags encourage a rapport, making the museum a friendly and fun environment for our young, developing visitors.

Helen S. Dube serves as Coordinator of Education Programs at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art. Docent Rene Rogers has delighted children of all ages since she began volunteering at the Museum of Art in 1985. Ms. Rogers has also developed an extensive hands-on program for the museum ‘s Greek art collection for classroom use in elementary and middle schools.

Dubé, Helen S. “Bowdoin’s Museums Host Lots of Little Ones: In In the Art Museum, The Docent Educator 3.2 (Winter 1993): 7.

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