Arts & Culture
6:15 pm
Mon April 8, 2013

Don't Touch? Not at This Museum

How do you design a museum that's eco- and kid-friendly?

The Wildernest at the Madison Children's Museum offers young kids a hands-on museum experience.
The Wildernest at the Madison Children's Museum offers young kids a hands-on museum experience.
Credit Courtesy of The Design Coalition

As Wisconsinites, we're lucky to have access to some really stellar museums. Our state boasts nationally and internationally recognized institutions like the Milwaukee Art Museum, Ten Chimneys in Genesee Depot and Madison's Chazen Museum of Art, while researchers travel far and wide to look at artifacts and materials like the Racine Art Museum's renowned collection of contemporary crafts and the Wisconsin Historical Society's vast Civil War holdings. We know what we as adults can learn from museums and similar institutions.

But what is the role of a museum when it comes to the youngest of us? Is it to expose them to historical artifacts or to help them develop a sense of who and where they are in the present?

Material Culturalist Gianofer Fields set out to find some answers and learn what meaning, if any, historical objects have for kids. For help, Fields went to the Madison Children's Museum, which features a unique early learning area. The Museum's staff, including early learning coordinator Cheryl DeWelt, are experts at introducing children, even infants, to objects during a crucial point in their development.

The "water machine" at the Madison Children's Museum
The "water machine" at the Madison Children's Museum
Credit Courtesy of The Design Coalition

The Museum is in the Old Montgomery Ward Building near the capitol and many of the exhibits are created from materials from the original store. DeWelt told Fields that the museum's goal is reuse materials found, made and grown in Wisconsin to help the state's youngest residents develop a sense of the place where they live.

Gianofer Fields studies material culture at UW-Madison and is the curator of It's a Material World - that project is funded by the Chipstone Foundation, a decorative arts foundation whose mission is preserving and interpreting their collection, as well as stimulating research and education in the decorative arts.