The goal of this proposed research is to examine how participatory exhibits at children’s story museums may function as sites for critical engagement with popular representations of childhood in children’s literature and other media texts. Using a theoretical framework inspired by ‘queering the museum’ (Robert 2016), ‘decolonizing the museum’ (Lonetree 2012), and ‘the participatory museum’ (Simon 2010) movements, this SSHRC Insight Development grant will fund a pilot initiative that considers the children’s story museum as a dynamic transmedia platform for the design of participatory exhibits and critical dialogue. From this perspective, we query how current children’s museum exhibits focused on childhood texts and cultures present opportunities to negotiate, or subvert cultural discourses of childhood, nationalism, gender, race, sexuality, and ability. Drawing upon theoretical and methodological frames from critical museology and the field of children’s media cultures, this project centrally invites children to engage as collaborative-curators in the transmedia design of a pilot story museum exhibit rooted in special collections and archives of children’s literature. The proposed research is aligned with two of SSHRC’s future challenge areas: 1) What new ways of learning, particularly in higher education, will Canadians need to thrive in an evolving society and labour market; and 2) How can emerging technologies be leveraged to benefit Canadians? Focused on children as active co-curators of historical and contemporary childhood representations in the Canadian context, this project highlights how citizenship is practiced at the scale of everyday lives, and may be mobilized through the use of emerging technologies in collaborative museum spaces.
The children’s story museum and children as co-curators
This proposed research stems from a broader research program that examines the children’s story museum as a distinctive socio-spatial location focused on children’s literature, storytelling, picture book illustration, and literacy education. The children’s museum has evolved internationally as a non-profit public institution focused on informal family-oriented education, and interactive play environments (Acosta and Shine 2000; Judd and Kracht 1997). The majority of these museums highlight science education; however, over the past decade, a new specialized institution has emerged in the form of the children’s story or book museum. Distinct from museums concentrated on the history of children’s literature and childhood, these children’s story museums combine traditional curatorial and display conventions with active play environments, and multimodal learning stations. These exhibits often employ immersive and interactive designed spaces and mediated tools such as mobile apps for engagement with texts. Preliminary work for the broader research program involved a foundational literature review and analysis of existing museum sites to situate this proposed work in the Canadian context including: The Story Museum (Oxford, UK); Seven Stories: National Centre for Children’s Books (Newcastle, UK); the Chihiro Art Museum (Tokyo, Japan); Hans Christian Andersen House and Museum and Tinderbox Cultural Centre (Odense, Denmark); and the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art (Amherst, USA). The proposed research aims to extend the preliminary fieldwork through collaborations in the Canadian context with archivists, educators, children’s book authors and artists, and young people to create an interactive and immersive exhibit with both digital and physical elements.
This exhibit will draw upon local rare books and archival collections, including the Osborne Collection of Early Children’s Books, Ryerson University’s Children’s Literature Archive, Toronto, and Ontario Archives, alongside children’s own stories and imagined narratives across media. Existing research on young people in museums and art galleries is primarily situated within museum education, as well as educational research with a focus on interactive play and informal learning in science museum contexts (e.g. Allen 2004; Blud 1990; Henderson and Atencio 2007; Mayfield 2005; Piscitelli and Anderson 2001). Research on the use of media in relation to museum education has a broad and growing research base (Aarvanitis 2010; Chan and Cope 2015; Henning 2006; Light et. al 2016; Murnaghan and McCreary 2016; Nancarrow 2016; Pallud 2016; Ruberg 2015; Roussou 2004). In addition, educational research on out-of-school literacies investigates the significance of ‘third spaces’ between home and school such as museums for the potential negotiation of cultural identities (Pahl and Kelly 2005). There is also a body of work on museum projects with young people for urban revitalization and outreach (Dockett et. al 2011; Colbert 2011), and examples of young people as cocurators or collaborators are often related to projects in urban planning, geography, and social sciences (Cahill 2007; Driskell 2017). While a number of activist curatorial movements are in effect (See Janes 2011; Golding 2012; Simon 2010), very few of these projects involve young people in their critical approaches and practices (Hope 2016; Unrath and Luehrman 2009).
Participatory museums and youth citizenship
The proposed project aims to extend this research within the children’s museum context through
the application of theoretical frames from critical museology with a focus on citizenship and
participation. Both Nina Simon (2010) and Graham Black (2012) explore the ways that 21st century
museums can involve dialogue and civil engagement. As observed by Simon, there is a need for these
institutions to redefine themselves as public spaces or evolve in order to continue to be relevant through
“inviting people to actively engage as cultural participants, not passive consumers” (ii). The theoretical
framework employs an identity focus to cultural citizenship that foregrounds citizenship practices over
static notions of citizenship. As Asa Olsson (2017) argues, “cultural citizenship… theorised as learning
processes beginning early in life, shift[s] the focus of citizenship away from membership in a certain
state to aspects such as common experiences and cognitive processes” (2). Simon’s concept of the
‘participatory museum’ posits active engagement as linked closely to citizenship practices (2010).
The scholar-practitioner movements of ‘queering the museum’ (Mills 2013; Robert 2012;
Sanders 2008) and ‘decolonizing museum’ (Lonetree 2012) extend this goal of active engagement with
intentional practices of critical dialogue. This work addresses and challenges the museum’s normative
cultural representations including sexism, ableism, homophobia and transphobia, white privilege,
racism, and settler colonialism. Following this frame, our proposed pilot exhibit may be perceived as a
site for activism and intervention. While narrative-oriented strategies have been employed in museum
education for young people (Bedford 2014; Frykman 2009), recent critical museology movements use
digital platforms for cultural critique of dominant discourses with curatorial interventions such as the
queer digital storytelling project at the Museum of History and Industry in Seattle (Robert 2012).
Framed by these international scholar-practitioner movements, recent projects by Canadian scholars
have emerged that focus on human rights, post-conflict memory and trauma, and engagement with
‘difficult knowledge’ within museums and heritage sites (Failler 2015; Failler et al. 2015; Lehrer 2013; Lehrer and Butler 2016). Our proposed research situates itself alongside these dynamic projects,
particularly Monica Patterson’s critical curatorial work with children in post-apartheid South Africa
(2016). Her research provides a valuable model for curatorial approaches to visual representations about, for, and by children in tandem with archival material.
Transmedia practices and children’s media cultures
Children's literature theorist Karin Lesnik-Oberstein (1994) observes that the "ideas and art
[created for and about children produces] a narrative of adults" (13). These representations are often
rooted in discourses of childhood innocence (Gubar 2011) that do not reflect the lived experiences of children, and often involve racialized representations of innocence (Bernstein 2011) that leave young people of colour absent or marginal within popular and canonical children’s literature (Nel 2017). Drawing on the theoretical concept of transmedia storytelling in the curatorial context may meaningfully extend, inform, or subvert the dominant discourses of childhood as socially and culturally constituted. Henry Jenkins (2006) defines a “transmedia story” as one that “unfolds across multiple media platforms with each new text making a distinctive and valuable contribution to the whole” (95-96).
Transmedia texts give young people the opportunity for critical or subversive dialogue with the ideological constructions and representations of normative childhoods (Hamer 2015; Hurley 2014). Digital cultures offer extensions and interruptions of the dominant discourses of identity through fan fiction and video game play (Meyers et al. 2014; Romano 2015; Sarmiento 2014; Tosenberger 2008). Moreover, discourses of childhood may be negotiated at the institutional level of special collections and archives; the design of selected exhibit texts; and the transmedia practices of co-curators (an expansion of Du Gay et al. 1997; Buckingham 2000). Nevertheless, the affordances of digital media for critical engagement demand further mobilization particularly in the context of an exhibit. Many museums incorporate mobile apps to engage with exhibits; however, the offers for co-creation or the critique of an exhibit’s content is limited with many apps directed at young children (Hamer 2017; Hateley 2014). The proposed research aims to harness the potential of transmedia storytelling, perceiving these transmedia practices as invitations for critical dialogue with childhood discourses across older and newer media.
Significance of the research and contributions to the field
Museum exhibits have become distinctive venues for public awareness and critical engagement
with children’s literature both for young people and adults but only limited academic work has focused
on these sites. While there have been exhibits focused on special collections at museums, public
libraries, and art galleries, there is currently not one example of a children’s story museum dedicated to
children’s literature, storytelling, and picture book art in Canada. Popular representations in children’s
literature, media, and museum exhibits in the North American context often frame childhood in idealized narratives, do not necessarily represent the lived experiences of children or give opportunities to actively critique these normative narratives. Children’s literature scholars examine representations of race in children’s literature (Martin 2004; Thomas 2018), postcolonialism (Bradford 2017), queer approaches to fairy tale (Hurley 2014), and Indigenous graphic narratives of childhood trauma (Wolf 2014; 2016); however, these issues are not generally addressed in children’s book exhibits. The proposed collaborative element will expand upon existing work in the field, provide a venue for future partnerships, as well as raise awareness of children’s literature collections and archives for undergraduate, graduate, and emerging researchers in Canada.
This research is organized around a three phase research design with Phase 1 consisting of the
research with archives and collections, Phase 2: the community collaboration with young people as cocurators, and Phase 3: knowledge mobilization. The research team will consist of the two co-applicants, a partners’ circle including local youth culture representatives from literature, media, and arts agencies, and 6 research assistants from Ryerson University: two undergraduates, two graduate students from the MA in the Literatures of Modernity, and two Communication and Culture PhD students. This small research team will allow the project to maintain focus, generate synergies, and build upon prior knowledge on the subject matter. The research will be conducted in Toronto over two years. As a pilot initiative contributing to a longer-term research program, this research will prioritize mentorship for undergraduate and graduate research assistants. In addition, it will model the experience of research for the young community co-curators.
Ryerson University serves as an ideal institution to host this project with programs that emphasize innovation, interdisciplinarity, and experiential learning. The Centre for Digital Humanities and Children’s Literature Archive at Ryerson University are two unique resources that the project will draw on in its research, collaboration, and knowledge mobilization phases. Along with the Collaboratory at the Ryerson University Libraries, the Centre for Digital Humanities, and the Ryerson Image Centre, there are numerous creative venues to showcase our diverse research outputs, alongside the typical modes of academic conference and journal article publication. The three phases of this research build on each other. The small structure of the team will enable synergies, and group learning. As a pilot study, this research is designed to be built upon, and spur further research projects on young people, transmedia practices in museums, and youth citizenship in Canada. As a base for a broader research program, this study will solidify the empirical and methodological techniques, and contribute to the scholarly and societal communities in theory and practice.