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Inside this issue:

Exporting the Exploratorium: Creating a "Culture of Learning"

Discovery Rooms: "An Alternative Experience of the Museum"


ASTC Dimensions November/December 1999
November/December 1999

Discovery Rooms:
"An Alternative Experience of the Museum"

By Wendy Pollock

It was 25 years ago, in 1974, that the Discovery Room opened its doors at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. Since then, "discovery room" has become a generic term, and nearly a hundred members of ASTC report having at least one of them. Part of a long tradition of teaching with objects, which expressed itself almost a hundred years ago in the boxes and open collections at the Brooklyn Children's Museum and the American Museum of Natural History, the discovery room concept has converged over the years with other developments like the "playspace" at the Children's Museum in Boston. But it was the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History that gave the "discovery room" its name, and where its defining features were tested and refined.

The Discovery Room was in many ways a product of the social movements of the late 1960s. Open classrooms were being built, progressive schools founded, and the Exploratorium and Ontario Science Centre were opening their doors. S. Dillon Ripley, then Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, envisioned programs that would reach "the huge untapped public that has never entered a museum nor enjoyed any of the educational and esthetic values that museums reflect."

In 1967, under Ripley's leadership, the Smithsonian opened a branch across the Anacostia River in Southeast Washington "to provide an environment for open, non-directed learning through actual contact with real things." The Anacostia Neighborhood Museum became a testing ground for what was to become the Discovery Room. The original proposal for the museum stated, " will serve its neighborhood as what might be described as a 'curiosity shop,' to which people can come—as to any museum—to observe an assemblage of interesting or puzzling or beautiful things. Objects will not be displayed as in traditional museum exhibits, however, but will be available to touch and tinker with; working models and machines will be stressed over static displays" (Marsh, 1966). The "touch exhibit," with its fossils, shells, minerals, butterflies, and other specimens, was one of the most popular with visitors to the new museum.

With the experience in Anacostia in mind, Caryl Marsh envisioned a similar exhibit in the National Museum of Natural History on the Mall downtown. Marsh, then special assistant to Secretary Ripley, was a psychologist who had worked for the Washington, D.C., recreation department and been instrumental in planning the Anacostia Museum. The director of the Museum of Natural History agreed to the plan, Judith White came from the Children's Museum in Boston to be part of the planning effort, and in 1972, the National Science Foundation provided a $50,000 grant to support development of the "experimental touch exhibit" (Marsh, 1987).

"I thought of the Discovery Room as a kind of special place," Caryl Marsh recalls, "like a reserve book section of a library, halfway between the exhibits in glass cases and the actual collections. This was to be a mid-point for those visitors interested in this kind of quiet exploration-this would be a place for them. The Discovery Room was to provide an alternative space, and an alternative experience of the museum."

An Experiment Grounded in
Psychological Research

Informing the development of the Discovery Room was psychological research on what has been called "haptic," or active, touch. Studies cited in the original grant proposal had documented the importance of touch in young children-who, for example, were more likely to recognize a form if they'd handled it actively than if they'd only seen it (Zaporozhets, 1965; Denner and Cashdan, 1967). Also important was research on cognitive processing that suggested that the information-processing capacity of human memory was limited to the "magic number seven plus or minus two" (Miller, 1956).

Activity boxes containing museum-quality specimens were developed and tested, taking into account these basic psychological principles. Typically, a box includes no more than eight or nine objects, with questions on laminated cards to encourage investigation. One of the first, "Rainbow Shells," still contains an assortment of yellow, red, violet, and green shells. Others contain beetles, coral, and other objects related to the museum's collections. White was later to describe these boxes as "small, intimate exhibits used for an extended period of time by visitors who are sitting down" (White, et al. 1991).

Other defining elements of the Discovery Room are large-scale "stumpers" like a cannonball-shaped concretion and a salt-lick. The environment is bright and cheerful, there's plenty of seating on stools and carpeted risers, and the number of users is regulated by a ticket system so it's never crowded or noisy. "It's warm, it's sunny, it's inviting, there are things to touch and handle-and there's a smiling person at the door inviting you in," Marsh reflects.

Volunteers have been essential to the Discovery Room's success. "As carefully designed as the Discovery Room is," according to two of the people who have managed the room over the past 25 years, "it would all fail without the supportive intervention of the staff. They are an integral part of the structure. They not only maintain the physical space, they also sustain its psychological atmosphere" (Pawlukiewicz and Stevens, 1987).

The Discovery Room today is much as it was 25 years ago-and even some of the volunteers have been there since the beginning. Ethel Nietmann started volunteering the day the room opened, and Elinor Wilbur came just three months later. Visitors include the children of people who came when they were children themselves. A volunteer recently noted in the log, "A lady came by today—she said she had brought her son regularly to the Discovery Room 23 years ago!"

The Concept Spreads
The Discovery Room proved so popular, it soon spread to other museums, among them the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, the Milwaukee Public Museum, Omniplex in Oklahoma City, and later the Smithsonian's National Zoo and National Museum of American History. Others, like the Bell Museum of Natural History's Touch and See Room, and the Florida State Museum's Object Gallery, were taking shape at the same time as the Discovery Room, and also became more widely known (Journal of Museum Education, 1987).

Helping to support the spread of the idea were a 1981 ASTC workshop at the Cranbrook Institute of Science, and another the following year at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, home of Outside-In, a room that has much in common with the one at the National Museum of Natural History. Later, the traveling exhibition Psychology, circulated by ASTC, included a staffed discovery area complete with activity boxes on topics like problem solving. The Museum of Science in Boston has one of the largest discovery rooms, at 4,800 square feet.

The Memories Last
Visitors to discovery rooms not only enjoy the experience of touching, handling, participating, and observing up close, they seem to remember their experiences vividly, and to continue their learning later, at home. In a study at the National Zoo, visitors to the HERPlab reported in phone interviews several months after their visits that they'd come back again, talked about their experiences with neighbors and friends, read books about reptiles and amphibians, bought microscopes—and, in one case, released a recently captured frog (White and Barry, 1984).

Other studies have shown that, while attendance may vary with the subject of the discovery room, in general these spaces are well suited to family groups. "It's something we can do together," is a typical comment (White, et al. 1991). People spend longer in discovery rooms than in other parts of the museum, studies also show, and they spend more time touching, trying things out, and reading. They talk not only about what they've learned, but how they've learned: "I like the questions and the way they took you step by step...You got more involved," is a typical comment (White, et al. 1991).

The Future of "Discovery"
With the proliferation of "discovery centers" and "discovery museums" (more than 40 ASTC-member museums use the word "discovery" in their names), what distinguishes a discovery room from what might be offered in the rest of a museum? More than anything, it's the opportunity to slow down—and even sit down—in a friendly, quiet environment, and to focus closely. According to Judith White, many visitors have called the Discovery Room the "Recovery Room" because it offers a change of pace from the rest of the museum.

The National Museum of Natural History this year opened an 80,000-square-foot complex with a large-format theater and a food court. It's called the Discovery Center, because Discovery Communications, the media corporation, made a large contribution toward the capital budget. The Discovery Room is slated to move to the top floor of the complex in 2002, to triple in size, and to make room for computer stations and a prototyping space. Volunteers are harder to recruit than they used to be, so any increase in staffing will need to be paid, according to Linda Stevens, acting chief of electronic outreach at the museum and former manager of the Discovery Room. What effects these changes will have remains to be seen. For now, the old Discovery Room, with its original petrified wood stump and whale jawbone on the wall, and many of its boxes still in place, continues to attract loyal followers.

For more information on discovery rooms
Linda Stevens, acting chief of electronic outreach, National Museum of Natural History, ph. 202/633-9497.

Ordering information
Copies of Snakes, Snails and History Tails can be purchased for $10 plus shipping ($8 plus shipping for ASTC members). Contact Shirley Gaines, ASTC publications, ph. 202/783-7200 x140; e-mail; or visit ASTC's web site at

Denner, B. and S. Cashdan. 1967. "Sensory Processing and the Recognition of Forms in Nursery School Children." British Journal of Psychology 58: 101-104.

"Focus on Discovery Rooms." 1987. Journal of Museum Education 12, no. 2.

Marsh, Caryl. 1966. "A Proposal to Establish an Experimental Neighborhood Museum." Unpublished manuscript, Anacostia Neighborhood Museum Archives.

Marsh, Caryl. 1987. "The Discovery Room: How It All Began." Journal of Museum Education 12, no. 2: 3-5.

Miller, George. 1956. "The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information." Psychological Review 63: 81-97.

Pawlukiewicz, Janet and Linda Stevens. 1987. "Docents: We Couldn't Live Without Them." Journal of Museum Education 12, no. 2: 11-13.

White, Judith, et al. 1991. Snakes, Snails and History Tails: Building Discovery Rooms and Learning Labs at the Smithsonian Institution. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.

White, Judith and Sharon Barry. 1984. Families, Frogs, and Fun: Developing a Family Learning Lab in a Zoo. Washington, D.C.: National Zoological Park, Smithsonian Institution.

Zaporozhets, A.V. 1965. "The development of perception in the preschool child." In P.H. Mussen (ed.), European Research in Cognitive Development. SRCD 30, no. 2: 82-101.

Wendy Pollock is ASTC's director of research and publications.

Sidebar: What Is a Discovery Room?
In the 1991 publication Snakes, Snails and History Tails, Judith White answered the question this way: "A discovery room is a separate area, within the context of a larger institution, containing a collection of objects that can be touched and examined. It offers self-paced, self-directed educational activities. Through these objects and activities, the room offers visitors a means for understanding a larger collection." Beyond that, these are key:
a chance to touch
a place to sit down
attentive, well-trained staff
a closer look
freedom to be curious
self-directed, self-paced activities
help in understanding the rest of the museum
a place where families can learn together

And finally, White says, the sorting and classifying activities that are common in discovery rooms are fundamental to the work of scientists, too. "When the discovery room visitor returns that box, he or she has had a pleasant sensory experience, but has also completed an exercise in classification. And it was fun!" (White, et al. 1991).

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