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January 16, 2011 / helengraham

Simulators, Captain Planet and the trip to the National Air and Space Museum

Last weekend, I got together with Deion and Michelle to reflect on the visit to the National Air and Space Museum… here are some of the thoughts we shared. Touch, the Simulator and using cartoons to interpret the Museum’s collections all came out on top.

I like the rockets and the leaning backwards and forwards (the simulator). Captain Planet went to the moon, so did Tom and Jerry.


H: What were the best bits of the trip from your perspective?

M: The best parts of the trip were the simulators and exhibits he could walk through and explore. Deion is a visual learner. He likes to move around and observe.

H: How do you like to use museums with Deion?

M: I take pleasure in teaching Deion through exploration. As a parent you have to supplement your child’s education. You can’t depend on the school to do it all. Deion enjoys new experiences. He enjoys browsing through the bookstores. He brought home a book on volcanoes and weather. This is a strong indication that he likes science.

H: What could be done to make the experience of visiting the museum better for you both?

M: We discussed quiet rooms and McDonald’s is a draw. I googled and found Exhibits that engage the senses would also be a memorable experience. The National Zoo is one of Deion’s favorite places to visit. He loves animals. He likes to watch videos (the birth of a baby elephant) and the interactive panel where you push a button and can hear the variations in roars of the lions noting their moods.

H: Would you like to come to special events aimed at people on the autism spectrum (e.g. early opening, exhibitions which included chill out spaces)?

M: Yes! I would be interested. It is a matter of preference. Some would like to be with the general public. I’d rather be in an environment where we could be perfectly comfortable with no stares and comments. It will take the general public some time to understand the behaviors of children on the spectrum.

H: What do you think the barriers for families with children with learning difficulties attending museums?

M: The crowds, waiting in long lines, children not understanding what they hear or see and sensory issues are barriers.

H: How do you think museums should advertise to reach more families with children with intellectual difficulties?

M: The museums could advertise with the schools. Children could take the information home in their back packs. Public Service announcements on radio, TV and the internet would also be good. The hospitals and clinics that serve children with special needs would also be a resource.


Cartoons: Characters and Stories
Reflecting on the visit to the National Air and Space Museum, what came across very clearly was that Deion came to the museum with all sorts of contexts for understanding space – and a lot of these came from his favourite cartoons.

This made for a great discussion about the visit – as Deion told the stories about Captain Planet and the Planeteers saving the Earth, the time Tom and Jerry went to the moon and Courage the Cowardly Dog riding a meteor. This strongly shows that we all come to museums with lots of knowledges, ideas and contexts already in place. These are sometimes called personal meaning maps.

One suggestion Michelle made was that cartoons might be used more in displays. We discussed whether the reason Deion likes cartoons was because of the drawings themselves or the fact that cartoons have characters and stories. The emphasis Deion was placing on the characters and stories suggest the latter is true… so if approaches were taken to use cartoons it would make sense for there to be a consistent approach across the museum and for films to be made using cartoon stories to explore key interpretative points.

Simulators: Not an ‘add on’
Deion did love the simulator and remembered it clearly. He specifically said he liked the leaning backwards and forwards and remembered that the film was about planes.

This made me think a bit about the way museums manage simulators. Often they are seen as a business opportunity and they are often run by an external company. Obviously care is taken to find a relevant subject (the history of flight in the case of Deion and Michelle’s visit) but the sheer impact of the simulators makes a more direct tie in to a specific museum’s collections something worth exploring.

Basically, the experience of working on this project suggests that museums should not think of the simulators as an ‘add on’…. rather they are likely to be one of the key memories of the visit. And this will be true for all sorts of visitors.

Before and after the visit
One of ideas Michelle shared when we met was that photographs of the museum and its exhibitions should be available before the visit. She said this would be useful so that she could talk through with Deion what to expect and to revisit the exhibits afterwards.

While the idea of more formal ‘social stories’ for people on the autism spectrum – a technique used to help prepare people for new experiences – are also being explored by another family in the project, the idea of just making pictures available is a relatively easy and cheap thing for museums to do. So while the virtual reality pre-visit resources idea suggest by the Georgetown University Consumer Council may be out of reach for all museums, taking photographs and making exhibit maps available on the web is a great first step.

Thanks so much to both Michelle and Deion for being part of the Museums for Us project.


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