The power of real


Of all the questions that curious children ask about specimens in the Museum, the most frequent by far is ‘Is it real?’. It’s a surprisingly complex question, mixing ideas of authenticity with more basic confusion over whether something is, was, or wasn’t ever alive.

So what do children make of all the weird and wonderful things on display in museums and how does it affect their experiences? Research by psychologist Dr Louise Bunce aims to find out, as she explains here…

If you want to know when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, or how bees extract nectar from a flower, or what meteorites are made of, what would you do to find out? Search the web perhaps? The answers to all these questions, and many more besides, can be found on the internet, so why visit a museum instead to learn about the natural world?

Example animal used in the research - Oryctolagus cuniculus and the toy rabbit
A taxidermy rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus), used in the research in the Museum…

Despite the wealth of information available online, the objects in museums continue to captivate visitors and offer something that the internet can’t. There’s something about ‘the real’ that has a certain power. Standing close to, and sometimes even touching, the genuine article – whether that be the head of a Dodo, or a painting by a Dutch Master, or a fossilised dinosaur skeleton – can induce goose bumps in museum visitors. But where does this potent effect come from?

... and a soft toy rabbit. Even younger children know the toy rabbit is not 'real'.
… and a soft toy rabbit. Even younger children know the toy rabbit is not ‘real’.

To begin to look at this question I have studied the importance and understanding of the ‘real’ in children visiting museums. When do children develop an understanding that they are looking at the real thing as opposed to a copy or model?

I conducted research with children visiting the Oxford University Museum of Natural History to see whether they understood that displays are of genuinely real animals, not manufactured models or replicas. And if they think they are models, how does that affect their experience?

The results were quite striking. Most 4- to 5-year-olds believed that the animals on display were not real because they were not moving, or because they were not alive. Consequently their reaction was somewhat dismissive.

A child participating in the research at the Museum
A child participating in the research at the Museum

In contrast, most older children, those from the age of around 8 years, said that the animals were real because, for example, they had the real animal’s fur, or other authentic features. These children were also more curious about the animals because they were more likely to ask a question about the displays than children who perceived the specimens as not real.

So if younger children were missing out on the power of the real, I wondered whether there was something we could do to help them. I repeated the experiment but this time introduced children to toy animals and asked them to compare them to the museum animals. Now the majority of 4- to 5-year-olds seemed to gain a sense of awe because they perceived the museum animals as genuinely real in comparison to the toys, which they knew were not real.

These experiments seem to indicate that children do not necessarily perceive museum objects in the same ways as adults, but that we can help to give them meaningful encounters with museum specimens to create an inspiring museum visit. So don’t just Google it – grab the kids, a cuddly toy prop, and get down to the museum – or indeed out into nature – to be inspired by the real.

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3 thoughts on “The power of real

  1. During my career as natural history curator, after giving a gallery talk to primary school children, I was often asked when did I feed the animals? (the stuffed animals in display cases). Several of the children, different schools, different visits, assumed they were alive and were exercised/fed once the museum closed.
    Having worked at Glasgow Museum, Kelvingrove in the 1970’s for three years and at a time when they employed three full-time and an Area Museum Council trainee taxidermist, the question of “real” for me took on a different interpretation. OK the skin, skull and leg bones/feet are invariably “real” but the eyes, viscera and much of the skeleton is not there – so not a “real animal” but certainly a “real piece of taxidermy”. Unless you ask about fish – the modern technique being to cast two-thirds of the fish in dental alginate and from that make a resin cast – giving you a fish with one third of its side missing (a hole which is adapted to house the mechanism to hang or otherwise fix it on display. The resin cast is then laboriously painted, scale by scale, five, six or more coats of paint and lure not being unusual, and if you examine a fish, each scale is subtly different to its neighbour. My colleague spent quite a time preparing just such a cast of a 40lb salmon. However, rays and other flat fish are quicker as the bulk of the painting can be done by spray and feathering in by brush.

    We have “real fossils” (as well as resin/plaster models of the same) but that fossil is not a real taxon or part thereof – each atom of the skeleton/shell has likely been replaced and soft tissue decomposed. For example a fossil oyster is, precisely or pedantically, a fossil oyster shell. a dinosaur bone is a fossilised dinosaur bone, a real fossil but not a real bone.

    So, yes indeed, what is real? Am I real as I have perspex lenses after cataract surgery? I guess not 100% real any longer, but passable to anyone ignorant of my medical history.

  2. […] Taxidermy The Museum is well-known for its touchable taxidermy. As of today, we have two large bears, a Black Bear and a Brown Bear, greeting visitors as they enter the main court, as well as taxidermy specimens on our Sensing Evolution touch-tables. For children and adults alike, this close encounter with a taxidermy animal prompts the question – is it real? […]

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