Childhood Studies Children’s Museums
Elee Wood
  • LAST REVIEWED: 01 February 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 February 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0194


Children’s museums are characterized by their emphasis on the audience and educational orientation to the museum experience rather than on collections or artifact-based experiences. They are unique from other types of museums in that they focus on the needs and interests of children and families and frequently draw on child development and early childhood education philosophies to guide their practice. Children’s museums also provide more active or “hands-on” experiences and environments that afford different types of interactions than is found in more traditional museum settings. While most of the content of children’s museum exhibitions is general, some museums have a specific orientation toward the sciences or the arts. The notion of a “children’s museum” is an American phenomenon born out of the progressive era of the late 19th and early 20th centuries and first pioneered by the opening of Brooklyn Children’s Museum in 1899. The earliest children’s museums were intended to see to the needs of young people and provided access to museum collections and content specifically to children through alternative formats. The earliest seeds of the idea were developed in the mid-1880s at the Victoria and Albert Museum of London, the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, in “children’s rooms” and “children’s galleries.” The evolution of the children’s museum format expanded slowly through the early part of the 20th century in the United States and has become common worldwide. Despite the worldwide presence, the vast majority of literature available in this area is based in the United States. Somewhat similar in focus, museums of childhood focus more specifically on the material culture of childhood, such as doll and toy collections, but may also incorporate a range of interactive and hands-on learning experiences. These museums, more typically found in Britain, like their counterparts in the United States, have their roots in children’s rooms and children’s galleries and slowly began shifting their emphasis toward more child-friendly exhibitions and experiences. The largest of these is the V&A Museum of Childhood at Bethnal Green, which established its full role as a museum of childhood in 1974. While museums of childhood are less common worldwide, appearing most often in Canada, England, Wales, Scotland, New Zealand, and Australia, there is a close parallel to the broader children’s museum format. As the concept of museums of childhood expanded over the later part of the 20th century, many newer museums, especially those outside of the United States, have emerged as hybrid versions. Such hybrids provide learning and discovery experiences as well as present exhibits and programs on the history, culture, and experiences of childhood.

General Overviews

As interdisciplinary museums emphasizing audience rather than collections, children’s museums are written about across a wide spectrum of fields including history, anthropology and museum studies, developmental psychology, child development, and educational approaches such as informal learning. As such, the literature about children’s museums, especially the earliest scholarship, often takes the form of discussions and definitions on what these museums are in relation to the museum field (Fisher 1960, Gurian 1999). Other overviews appear in journals focused on children and families. For example, Lewin 1989 introduced the concept of children’s museum in relation to schools and more traditional museums and the role of children’s museums in family life, whereas Butler and Sussman 1989 outlines the value of the children’s museum environment for family-based learning and meaning making. Judd and Kracht 1997 provides an overview of the guiding philosophies and educational approaches that many early children’s museums employed, and Mayfield 2005 provides a more recent overview of the evolution of children’s museums as a field. Materials related to museums of childhood are very limited. Darian-Smith and Pascoe 2013 explores the broad view of children’s material culture.

  • Butler, Barbara H., and Marvin B. Sussman. Museum Visits and Activities for Family Life Enrichment. New York: Haworth, 1989.

    Provides broad considerations of the role of museums as general learning environments and the role of museum experiences for children and families. Includes information more specific to children’s museum environments as informal learning settings.

  • Darian-Smith, Kate, and Carla Pascoe, eds. Children, Childhood and Cultural Heritage. Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2013.

    Edited volume with three parts: the first two are more generally related to material culture of children, while the third emphasizes the development of museums of childhood as repositories of children’s material culture. Chapters in Part 3 also explore the differences between museums of childhood and children’s museums.

  • Edeiken, Linda R. “Children’s Museums: The Serious Business of Wonder, Play, and Learning.” Curator: The Museum Journal 35.1 (1992): 21–27.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.2151-6952.1992.tb00731.x

    An overview of the early developments of children’s museums and their role in the realm of museums and museum practice generally.

  • Fisher, Helen V. “Children’s Museums: A Definition and a Credo.” Curator: The Museum Journal 3.2 (1960): 183–192.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.2151-6952.1960.tb00632.x

    Early essay detailing the purpose and practices of the children’s museum movement. Efforts to articulate the ways in which children’s museums fit within broader definitions of museums.

  • Gurian, Elaine Heumann. “What Is the Object of This Exercise? A Meandering Exploration of the Many Meanings of Objects in Museums.” Daedalus 128.3 (1999): 163–183.

    Philosophical discussion on different types of museums and their foci. Includes a section on the importance of the children’s museum in demonstrating a type of museum practice that emphasizes the audience rather than a concept or collection.

  • Judd, Mary K., and James B. Kracht. “The World at Their Fingertips: Children in Museums.” In Learning Opportunities beyond School. Edited by Barbara Hatcher and Shirley S. Beck, 21–27. 2d ed. Olney, MD: Association for Childhood Education International, 1997.

    Outline of the features and orientation of children’s museum practice, including philosophical and pedagogical elements as well as operational and programmatic structures.

  • Lewin, Ann W. “Children’s Museums: A Structure for Family Learning.” Marriage and Family Review 13.3–4 (1989): 51–73.

    DOI: 10.1300/J002v13n03_04

    Overview of children’s museums in relation to schools and other types of museums, and key areas of interest for scholars studying children’s museums as part of family life and experiences.

  • Mayfield, Margie I. “Children’s Museums: Purposes, Practices and Play?” Early Child Development and Care 175.2 (2005): 179–192.

    DOI: 10.1080/0300443042000230348

    Review of children’s museums worldwide and their conceptual development. Includes information on trends in exhibits and programming as well as issues that children’s museums face in relation to operations and community support. Includes overview of research on children’s museums.

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