A majority of French local museums are coping with a contrasting situation: school visits are very successful and receive appreciative comments, whereas leisurely family visits are disappointing and damage the image of museums. This damage can be seen especially through online comments such as those found on Tripadvisor and social networks. Most museums have made an effort to adapt their offer to schoolchildren by designing guided or interactive tours in collaboration with teachers, with the aim of meeting their curricular objectives. By contrast, welcoming families for a leisure activity remains a challenge for local museums, raising two issues. Firstly, because of the lack of staff and financial resources, a guided visit cannot be offered to every family that comes to the museum in search of a shared outing. Secondly, a family visiting the museum on their own, without the benefit of a guide or curator, calls for the design of innovative interactive visit pathways.
Beyond the undeniable success of school visits, the staff of the Angoulême Paper Museum saw a need to offer interactive visits for families with children aged 8 to 12. Our pragmatic, action-research perspective led us to co-design, with the curators, such an interactive family visit. We had to decide which guiding principles should be retained in the design of a digital application that makes the family visit an autonomous one.
We therefore reconceptualized family mediation as consisting of curatorial, parental and digital mediations. We elaborated a constructivist design framework of an interactive family visit drawing on two interconnected mobile applications aimed at the parent/child dyad. Next, we analyzed the reception of this interactive family visit that serves to intensify the scaffolding role of parents during an autonomous museum visit with their child.
Welcoming Families to the Museum: A New Research Agenda
During a family visit, the child discovers not only his/her own tastes but also those of other family members: grandparents, parents, siblings. In museums, parents are eager to immerse their child in a context that allows them to establish authentic communication. Thus, the family museum visit can be seen as a dialogic device – an opportunity for parents and children to use their respective skills to build a joint perception of a collection (Melvin et al. 2020).
Museum offerings for families rarely include activities designed for sharing among family members (Barbieux 2011; Leseur and Steffen 2016) – and when they do, the objective is reached mainly through mediation by a curator. Empowering families to achieve an autonomous visit is a key issue for local museums with limited financial and human resources. This relates to various issues surrounding the introduction of digital technologies into the museum experience.
Some digital issues are specific to the family museum visit. As a child’s attention span is limited, the support of parents is crucial in helping their child to fully enjoy a visit pathway, whose temporal dimension needs to match the age of the child. However, parents are not always experts or enlightened amateurs with respect to a museum’s theme. Thus, museum digital services should facilitate parental mediation. Parental scaffolding of the experiential learning process of the child visitor is key to a gratifying experience for both parent and child. Scaffolding has a threefold function: it supports not only the child/adult relationship but also mastery of digital devices and discovery of the museum environment by the child (Andre et al. 2017).
In some situations, the best technological mediation is unsophisticated – a mere pen and notebook will equip the child to pick up clues and carry out an exploration of the museum – whereas in situations involving “tweens,” for example, digital mediation is needed to integrate their expertise into the use of multiple screens that might lead them to be critical about the form of interactivity offered on the family visit.
Longitudinal Action Research with the Angoulême Paper Museum
Despite its know-how regarding school visits, the Angoulême Paper Museum appeared to be poorly equipped to develop family leisure visits, a situation that called for theoretical elaboration. “Contexts and occurrences that seem puzzling or paradoxical move us to search for explanations or resolutions from our own unique combination of perspectives derived from our theoretical exposures: they stimulate discovery” (Arnould et al. 2006, 107).
Despite a staff of just 4.5 full-time employees, school visits are successful, with an average of 5,000 schoolchildren visiting per year. Having secured a special budget for its 30th-anniversary festivities, the museum launched an investigation to determine how to put the relatively technical content of its permanent collection within the grasp of children aged 8 to 12 when solely accompanied by their parents. Our research with the museum took place over two years, during which time we conducted several complementary studies.
We carried out a series of formal interviews with the museum’s managers. The interviews revealed that empowering families at the Angoulême Paper Museum implies rethinking the museum experience as a form of participatory museology – that is, questioning the multiple mediations that take place to reinforce parents’ role as cultural mediators vis-à-vis their child. Indeed, rendering the family visit autonomous implied designing a digital application that would retain a number of guiding principles.
Considering the transformations evident in previous research on museum attendance by families, we elaborated a heuristic socio-semiotic framework comprising different forms of mediation – curatorial, parental, technological – to support a joint parent/child museum experience aimed at strengthening family ties.
Welcoming a family to the museum for an autonomous visit requires a structuring of these three mediations and “intentionally applying the strategy of scaffolding by building on simple concepts and working toward mastery of ideas that [can] inform adults and simultaneously help children stretch to new levels of understanding and achievement” (Wolf and Wood 2012, 29). Through this step in our action-research process, we were able to determine the conceptual underpinnings allowing for the design of a joint parent/child museum experience.
Designing and Evaluating an Interactive Family Visit
The literature review, combined with our heuristic theoretical framework, led to the design of four script proposals that were discussed with the museum staff. The curators chose to prioritize the development of the first script, focusing on the history of paper-making techniques from the craft era to industrial production.
The objective was to design an interactive family visit scenario interconnecting two mobile applications on two tablets, one for the child and one the parent. The design of these interconnected applications follows a triple mechanism that differentiates the content appropriate for the child from the content addressed to the parent and synchronizes the tablets to allow for joint activities.
Firstly, the application introduces elements of the exhibition from an angle different than that of the museum’s signage, or adds elements that help the child understand the functioning of the complex industrial machinery used in a paper mill (like a stop-motion video that animates the mechanical elements of an engraving reproducing a paper-making machine and details various steps.) This type of mediation enables the child to live the experience in the “here and now” and to achieve a good understanding of industrial details in an interactive form (Schiele et al. 1987).
Secondly, two paper-doll characters, Rizlo (benevolent and caring) and Edouard (energetic and curious), accompany the child and play a scaffolding role to facilitate his/her visit, complementary to that of the parent (where Rizlo and Edouard’s roles are limited). For the child, the scaffolding role of these two characters is obvious: they provide informal benchmarks for exploring an unknown universe and encourage the child to remain motivated and persevere to the end of the visit (Debenedetti 2003).
Thirdly, in designing joint parent/child activities under these different themes, we referred to canonical forms of interactivity and games fully mastered by parents and children: puzzles, riddles, quizzes, seven differences. These shared games invite the parent to play one of two roles, depending on the particular game: that of player, cooperating with the child and then doing the activity withthem, in synchronicity; or that of referee, knowing the answers beforehand. The parent plays a dual mediating role, “guessing” the answer with the child but also trying to interest the child in the exhibits while seeking the answer. These are opportunities for parent and child to enjoy engaging in an activity together – that is, to “be a family” during the museum visit.
After designing and developing the two interconnected mobile applications, our next step was to carry out a two-month naturalistic evaluation, within the museum, of the new interactive family visit by its first users: families with children aged 8 to 12.
Findings and Discussion
The children expressed how much they appreciated learning about the paper-making process by activating the different levers included in the application. Having their own tablet for this visit enabled the children to have their own such experience for the first time, as most of them commented that their parents did not lend them their tablet. Handling a tablet was a motivation for the children, who clearly led their parents during the joint visit, following the route to the end. The scaffolding role of the characters in the application was much appreciated.
The parents believed that the use of interconnected tablets boosted the motivation of their child to explore the museum and spend time trying to decipher some of the more complex exhibits. They had no difficulty with their scaffolding role, as they obtained the relevant information at each stage of the visit to help their child understand the collection. They commented that having their own tablet with additional information about the collection helped them make the museum’s content available to their children.
The curators, among other things, learned that museum mediation aimed at both parents and children must open up spaces for family bonding.
Implications for Management
It is apparent from the findings of this rich case study that the policy of welcoming families as part of a leisurely museum visit raises questions at both theoretical and managerial levels (Kotler et al. 2008).
Firstly, digital tools, without replacing the museum discourse, encourage the parent/child dyad to produce symbolic links (Gentes and Jutant 2012) based on the development of critical thinking, curiosity, sharing and aesthetic judgement. The exchange that takes place between parent and child about the exhibits allows the child to utilize his/her skills using the screens and to feel valued and motivated during the visit.
Introducing digital tools in museums to attract young audiences is a matter not of staging the latest technological innovations for an ephemeral surprise effect (Balloffet et al. 2014; De Bideran et al. 2020) but of finding the relevant interactive modalities to help children make sense of an exhibition within a caring, open and trusting relationship with their parents.
Secondly, as Birch (2018) points out, museums tend to package the child audience as a group of learners, thus possibly overlooking other motivations that children are likely to have during their visit, such as an opportunity to discover, share, play, imagine or be amused. This restrictive packaging of the child by museums exemplifies a more widespread normative perspective through “which children have been negatively packaged and othered in public space where they are not wanted or wanted only as a certain kind of body” (Birch 2018, 516).
Thirdly, as parenting is a creative situated practice, some parents might take on other roles during the museum visit, such as instiller of aesthetic values, enhancer of curiosity, emotional confidant, alleviator of discomfort, contradictor of opinions, or playmate. According to Birch (2018), shifting away from the museum as a place of learning to a place of leisure that might enhance family bonding implies a reconsideration of the ever-evolving relationships that shape both adulthood and childhood, as well as offering the child/parent dyad a visit that is equivocal – that is, open to multiple interpretations.
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