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Beyond Discovery Rooms: Bringing collections to life for young learners

Discovery rooms, a popular museum feature, started as nothing more than a room full of boxes with items visitors could physically touch, as opposed to the strict “no touching” policy of most museum galleries at the time. These rooms have grown into the immersive, hands-on spaces for children that we all know and love. But what happens when visitors leave the discovery rooms? How can discovery room experiences be integrated with the rest of the museum? Conference attendees gathered on Sunday afternoon to hear Daniel Zeiger from the American Museum of Natural History, New York City; Rebecca Kipling from the Museum of Science, Boston; and Ashley Gamell from the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, New York, discuss their ideas.

After experimenting with some discovery room activities from the presenters’ institutions, Zeiger described common key components of a discovery room including:

  • Safe, relaxed environment
  • Child centered
  • Free choice
  • Intricately linked to the rest of the museum content and mission

He then described challenges the discovery rooms at his institution have faced, such as how to connect visitors to the rest of the museum. Zeiger has addressed this challenge by introducing children to an object in the discovery room and then giving the families necessary guidance and materials to find related objects in the museum collection, with activities that do not require children or their caregivers to read a lot of text. Zeiger’s keys to discovery room success include:

  • Focusing on the objects. No one wants to just read a book.
  • Giving visitors a chance to explore the objects with the tools of a scientist.
  • Providing open-ended prompts that encourage creative thinking.
  • Using dedicated staff familiar with facilitation and listening techniques.
  • Not being afraid to try new things.

The discovery center at the Museum of Science, Boston, is wildly popular, but, due to fire safety concerns, had to drastically reduce the number of visitors permitted in the room at one time. Kipling discussed how she took the discovery room activities out into the rest of the museum, especially into some less popular spaces. Gamell described the transformation of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden discovery garden during a time when it had no set space due to the construction of a new discovery garden. Their decision to create portable activities in multiple places around the garden raised their visibility, both to the public and to staff, and doubled visitor participation in just two years. The session closed with attendees sharing their tips, stories, and questions about their own discovery rooms.