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.