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Understanding Museums - Australian Museums and Museology: Edited by Des Griffin and Leon Paroissien

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Barbara Piscitelli currently serves on the Council of the National Museum of Australia and the Board of the Queensland Museum. More about Barbara Piscitelli

What’s driving children’s cultural participation?
by Barbara Piscitelli

Children have long been visitors to Australian museums, galleries and libraries, and today they form a significant audience for the stories and objects contained in collections across the nation. Whether attending a cultural venue for a formal school excursion or a more casual family outing, children enjoy learning from objects and stories in Australia's collections.

This relationship between children and collections has changed considerably over time as different museums, galleries and libraries respond to social and educational trends. Early programs and exhibitions for children were academic and often formal in orientation, prompting one 1970s observer to remark: ‘Children and museums go hand in hand, though not always willingly’. [1]

Innovative exhibitions for children began to emerge in the 1980s, with the growth of science centres as hands-on learning and entertainment sites. At that time, most major Australian museums, galleries and libraries did not have permanent designated spaces or exhibitions for children; for the most part, interpretation of the collection and exhibitions for children were undertaken in formal public programs.

Opportunities for connecting children with culture emerged very quickly with new programs, spaces and research projects across Australia:

  • Every Body – designed by Mary Featherston in 1985 for the Melbourne Museum – was an exhibition about the human body and how it works. It drew a large audience over its lifetime, and provided a fresh new way of designing and interpreting for children. [2]
  • A number of specially designed exhibition spaces for children were developed, including Kid’s Island (1999–2009: Australian Museum, Sydney),[3] Nipper’s Railway (2003: The Railway Workshops Museum, Ipswich) and The Big Box (2002: The Melbourne Museum).

Researchers studied children’s learning and family learning in museums and galleries in Brisbane, Sydney and Canberra,[4] starting in the late 1980s.

By 2009, there was strong appeal and steady growth in popular demand for cultural activities all across Australia. [5] Interestingly, in the 5–12 year age group, there was a significant growth in cultural participation over the three years 2006–2009, with 1.9 million children (71 per cent) attending at least one museum, gallery, library or theatre event outside of school hours. [6] Children’s cultural participation outpaced their involvement in organised sport in 2006, and again – by rising numbers – in 2009. [7]

Rising cultural participation by Australian children: seven snapshots

What is driving the steady rise in cultural engagement by Australian children – and is it sustainable? To explore this question, the chapter presents snapshots of seven strategic innovations that have shaped the growth of children’s cultural programs in Australia, and examines their role in promoting a rise in children's cultural citizenship.

Out of the Box: Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Out of the Box is a Brisbane-based biennial festival of the arts for early childhood. Established in 1992 by the Queensland Performing Arts Centre, the festival has become a well-loved part of the cultural lives of many Queensland children, schools and families.

The festival features high quality arts experiences for young children, showcasing culturally diverse stage productions, internationally renowned theatre companies, community-based arts projects, and children’s creative outputs. Historical highlights of the festival include a commissioned stage production of Shaun Tan’s The Red Tree, and a fully interactive exhibition of The Art of Eric Carle. [8]

From the beginning, Out of the Box was delivered by a Creative Producer and a dedicated team within an established public performing arts centre. Though different people have occupied the positions, the festival remains focused on delivering high-quality child-centred arts experience.

Not content to simply deliver programs to the public, Out of the Box focuses on building strong relationships with various communities and professions. The partnerships have enabled many innovative arts opportunities, such as Island, a festival stage for Indigenous and Islander children throughout the state to perform traditional and contemporary dance on the big stage at a premier performing arts venue in Brisbane.

Local schoolchildren in Brisbane have co-produced performances and exhibitions in festival-organised partnerships with artists, filmmakers, musicians and actors. Volunteers have worked behind the scenes to make every aspect of the festival a comfortable and welcoming experience for the thousands who attend.

Importantly, Out of the Box partnerships extend to cultural precinct partners, with the gallery, museum and nearby parklands offering spaces and programs for young audiences during the festival.

Each festival features a conference for professional discussion about the place of the arts in children’s lives. Featuring artists, educators and researchers, the conferences provide a platform for exchanging ideas and information about research findings, social trends and innovative practices.

In 2004, the Queensland Performing Arts Centre joined with the Australia Council for the Arts and Queensland University of Technology to undertake action research on how parents and children experienced the festival. The research findings led to the publication of guidelines for organisations to use when working with parents of young children. [9]

Children's Gallery: Ipswich Art Gallery

At the Ipswich Art Gallery (IAG),[10] children have been a central part of the program since 1999 with the design and development of a dedicated children’s gallery. Informed by community consultation, one key aim of the Children's Gallery was to assure a welcoming and engaging experience for new audiences. The creation of a dedicated space for children's exhibitions and activities meant that the gallery had a permanent home where they could forge new relationships with children and families in the area. [11]

With a space for regular exhibitions and activities, IAG presents a diverse and changing menu of program options for children from birth to 12 years of age. Decisions about exhibitions and programs are based on a set of principles, which articulate the principles, values and beliefs underpinning the gallery's commitment to children. [12]

With a changing exhibition program, the gallery is constantly refreshed. For visitors, this means there is always something new to see at a favourite child-friendly place. Over its decade-long history, IAG has hosted more than 30 exhibitions for young audiences, including Bright + Shiny (2008), an innovative contemporary art environment for babies and toddlers. [13]

The gallery invests in research to inform its decisions and to advance knowledge of cultural learning in childhood. [14] Recently, IAG commissioned a small-scale study of how infants and toddlers respond to art and play in a purpose-designed gallery environment; findings have been disseminated at national and international conferences. [15]

Children's Art Centre: Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art

The Queensland Art Gallery (QAG) has been a leader for innovative children’s programs in Australian art museums. QAG first participated in child-centred research in 1987,[16] and has since generated many early innovations in exhibitions and programs for children and art. In 1998, QAG initiated a series of changing exhibitions for children. Initially installed in a small area, the popularity of the exhibitions led to increasing size and scale to accommodate the growing audience. [17]

As a partner in the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) Museums Collaborative research group (1997–2004), QAG implemented many new design and exhibition practices for young audiences, thus providing an ideal situation to study children's responses to innovative, interactive learning in an art gallery. Researchers worked collaboratively with gallery staff to investigate children’s participation during a series of exhibitions, including Play (2000–2001),[18] APT Summer Spectacular (2003), Colour (2003), and Lost and Found (2004). [19]

Among many innovative practices, QAG designs special exhibitions of contemporary art for children, provides multi-sensory and technologically interesting interactive resources, publishes children's activity books to advance artistic understanding, provides teacher in-service education, and focuses on both school and family audiences.

In 2006, the Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA) opened in the South Brisbane cultural precinct. Sitting alongside the Brisbane River and in the cultural precinct, GoMA offers a venue for contemporary art in Queensland, and hosts the Children's Art Centre, a dedicated space for exhibitions, activities and programs for young audiences.

The changing nature of the Children's Art Centre program allows for repeat visits by a faithful audience, and also allows on-going experimentation in exhibition design, installation and program. The Children’s Art Centre is the result of 20 years of innovative practice – a whole generation of knowledge about designing exhibitions and interpretation for child audiences. The gallery hosts conferences and participates in seminars to disseminate information about the artist collaborations and innovative museum practices.

ArtPlay: City of Melbourne

In 2004, the City of Melbourne opened its first dedicated children’s arts space on the banks of the Yarra River in the heart of the city. Named ArtPlay in honour of its dual commitments to children's art and play in the city, the site offers a stage for innovative, playful arts programs of all kinds. Under the direction of a Creative Producer, the small organisation has reached out to a wide and diverse audience.

As a space, ArtPlay is simple – it is a large open space formed by the elegant architecture of the former industrial building. The building was stripped back to its essentials during the re-purposing of the powerhouse from its former use to its new identity as a generator of creative practice in childhood. The interior is voluminous, with a mezzanine balcony over a basketball-court-sized open space. Naturally lit from above by enormous industrial-scale windows, the space offers ultimate flexibility and adaptability to the requirements of the diverse ArtPlay program.

ArtPlay quickly made its mark on Melbourne's cultural scene. With its innovative program of artist-led projects, ArtPlay attracted a wide audience – as diverse as the city itself. Each year, approximately 300 different events take place, celebrating artistic and creative practice of all kinds in the company of world-class artists – musicians, dancers, chefs, potters, puppeteers and more. A second venue for children's arts and culture has been developed by City of Melbourne in 2009: Signal is a space for 13–20-year-olds and features an array of options for artist-participant interaction in a space designed to offer new platforms for arts media for a teenage population.

Partnerships of all kinds are at the heart of ArtPlay’s philosophy and practice: partnerships with participants, artists, arts organisations, funding agencies, philanthropic groups and university researchers. Each partnership adds new value to the work of ArtPlay and enables expansion of the program and products to wider audiences.

Community studies informed the early concept development for a cultural space for children in Melbourne. [20] As a creative organisation, ArtPlay commenced its research agenda with their operation. In collaboration with The University of Melbourne, ArtPlay is examining children's cultural engagement. [21]

The corner: State Library of Queensland

When the State Library of Queensland (SLQ) re-opened in 2006, there was a significant focus on connecting with children and young people as part of the core audience. During the time of its closure, the library established a committee to advise on matters related to children and young people and then commissioned a review of its policies, practices and programs.

The library prepared in various ways to augment new child and youth-centred practices. Key personnel undertook professional learning on new practices; additional personnel were engaged to lead the new programs; small-scale project innovations were developed and refined; and audience research was completed.

Two major built-in programs were designed to cater to all segments of the population of children and young people. The first was the development of the corner, a space for young children (opened in 2006). the corner features a curated space for children’s play and learning. Four times a year, the exhibitions and interactive play-scapes of the corner transform, thus attracting repeat audience participation. The space is set up to cater for children's drawing, writing, reading, computing and dramatic play. Children may also engage in a story, song or rhyme with artists who work in the space.

The second major initiative at SLQ is a space for young people – the edge. Focused on young people (5–15 years), the edge provides a platform for ideas to be communicated and expressed through various forms of publishing and distribution. Opened in 2010, the edge is directed by a creative team including ‘catalysts’ – technical and conceptual assistants to work with young people in realising their ideas.

The Art Factory: Maitland Regional Art Gallery

The redevelopment of the Maitland Regional Art Gallery (MRAG) was a major expansion project for the gallery in this regional community. The aim was to enlarge the gallery space to a significantly larger footprint with purpose-designed, contemporary spaces. In addition to extending its exhibition areas, MRAG proposed to integrate a large interactive space for children and young people, branded as The Art Factory.

During the construction phase of redevelopment, one of the gallery's top priorities was to undertake a systematic audience research project to learn more about the values, wishes and needs of people in the local community and nearby regional area. MRAG hosted a two-week long community-wide conversation about the value and potential use of the gallery by diverse populations in the local and adjacent area.

More than 150 individuals took part in the conversations in small group sessions, including parents of young children, primary school students, middle school students, secondary school students, young adults, men (aged 25–55), women (aged 25–55), seniors (over 55s), education professionals, Indigenous people, advocates for people with special needs or persons with a disability, creatives (artists, designers, craft workers and others), local government officials and gallery staff. [22]

Every group identified children as a primary audience for a gallery. The design of the interactive gallery space, The Art Factory, generated excitement and animated conversation. Participants were eager to see exhibitions of art by, for and about children in the gallery. They were also eager to see low-cost or free workshops for children to be involved in making art.

When the gallery re-opened in its expanded building in August 2008, The Art Factory welcomed its first visitors. Embraced by young visitors, the venue provides an innovative two-storey exhibition and studio environment. Changing exhibitions by emerging artists and curators provide a menu of possibilities for cultural exploration and engagement.

School Education programs

Over more than 50 years, the sector has built educational programs to introduce school students to their collections and to make the most of educational synergies across the curriculum. Education is a key part of the mission of museums, galleries and libraries, so there are sequenced programs for primary and secondary students at most large venues. In recent times – in response to demand from schools and changing trends in education – museums, galleries and libraries have extended their school education services into the early childhood years, expanding programs and resources for children from four to 18 years.

A serious and substantial part of most cultural organisations' practice involves interpreting and presenting objects, ideas and stories for the school audience. While statistics are available for outside of school participation in cultural organisations, no comparable readily accessible data exists for children's participation during school hours.

Even so, the cultural sector reports a steady audience of school students for exhibitions, programs and events offered during school terms. Over the coming years, this number may rise considerably as the new national curriculum provides many references to learning from objects and stories contained in the nation's collecting and cultural institutions. [23]

Usually school students experience museums, galleries and libraries in a more formal or structured manner than they do when they come to visit the same place outside of school hours. Ideally, students are prepared for the visit at school, with a pre-visit lesson to heighten interest and broaden knowledge. At the cultural venue, most often schools will organise for a guided tour as part of the visit, though not all cultural organisations offer such a service. Following the visit, learning can be augmented in the classroom where the teacher offers reflective and analytical activities to extend ideas.

Over many years, education resources have been developed widely in the museum, gallery and library sector. A few cultural organisations maintain extensive loan resources to be used by school children and the wider community. [24] The National Museum of Australia recently developed a set of primary school textbooks to introduce students to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures. [25] Originally education publications were presented only in print form,[26] but now there are many online resources also available for teacher and student use, including blogs about objects (e.g. photographs, paintings, and specimens), on-line lectures and curriculum-related activities.

Partnerships drive many innovative education programs in the sector, with philanthropists contributing to the extension of services to disadvantaged or remote portions of the population. [27]

Drivers for cultural change

Innovative children's cultural participation programs have been sustained in the community for three main reasons – the programs are:

  • developed and produced by creative directors;
  • supported by sound research and reliable funding; and
  • informed by fundamental principles, theories and values.

Creative direction

Visionary leaders have shaped and sparked leading cultural programs for children in Australia. The creative direction of key child-centred arts innovations focuses on twin priorities: a) production of high quality cultural programs and b) widespread access to culture by a diverse population of children and their adult carers (e.g. parents and teachers).

By nature, a creative director works in the zone of innovation. Over more than 20 years, creative directors in Australian cultural organisations have developed and delivered a wide array of innovative exhibitions, programs, productions and spaces for children, often adhering to a set of high-quality indicators [28] to inform their creative decisions – criteria such as:

  • Developmental appropriateness: Children's cultural background, age and individual differences are taken into consideration. Programs are developed and delivered to respect the differences in maturity and knowledge of the audience.
  • Flexibility: Multiple entry levels and situations allow for children of all ability and skill levels to take part in some way.
  • Collaboration: Programs are designed so that children can participate with peers, parents and experts.
  • Interactive: Interactivity includes opportunities to engage in social learning, with technological tools, and in a multi-sensory environment. Children participate in hands-on, minds-on, self-directed, enjoyable situations.
  • Empowering: Opportunities are provided for children to make choices and be agents of their own learning.
  • Connected: Partnerships of all kinds characterise creative cultural programs for children, families, organisations and communities.
  • Quality: High quality programs are developed to ensure children get access to best practice, original materials and expert knowledge.
  • Bottom-up consultative process: Programs are developed through consultation with participants.

Sound research and reliable funding

Innovative programs for children require ongoing attention to social and educational trends. With rapid social and technological change, childhood experiences alter at a rapid rate with the uptake of consumer products and technological devices.

Audience research programs across the country are assisting leading cultural organisations to make informed decisions about how best to structure programs, invest in exhibition design, and remain relevant to young audiences. Leading organisations have built-in audience research and development as a part of core business.

Most cultural organisations have made considerable investments in children's learning and programs from within core budgets, but the growth of children's participation often means new sources of funding must be found to accommodate the spurt in demand. Funds often come from within the cultural sector, or from the community (fundraising and fees), but more and more the philanthropic community is providing resources to enable expansion of programs for young audiences.

Fundamental principles, theories and values

The growth of children and young people as cultural participants and as cultural decision makers is an important new phenomenon. Children and young people form a strong and significant part of the population. As citizens, children and young people have rights to form ideas and to express them through various media, and to participate in social and cultural life. Since 1990, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child [29] has assured their rights to express their views (articles 12 and 13) and to participate in cultural life (article 31).

Maintaining and serving an audience of culturally aware and active citizens requires deliberate strategies and initiatives. Government policies (both state and Australian government) support the growth of cultural engagement in young Australians – both in and out of school, so there is commitment at a high level for supporting the cultural life of children. Some leading organisations have clearly defined philosophies, policies, programs and practices to support children's cultural development.


Children’s cultural participation has grown significantly in the past generation in Australia. Some hypothesise that the first generation of cultural consumers from the late 1980s and early 1990s are now parents taking their children to a range of exhibitions, events and performances. Others speculate that children and young people are democratising culture as they generate new creative practices and engage in a rich cultural life. [30]

Both are correct in their observations: increasing numbers of children visit Australia’s cultural and collecting organisations – and most of them are accompanied in their out-of-school visits by a family member.

And, yes – children are democratising culture. By their mere participation, children are voting with their feet about what appeals to them in the marketplace of entertainment options. To take advantage of this growing audience, various organisations take the time to talk with children about various aspects of the work of creating and delivering cultural programs. For example, ArtPlay invites children to make decisions on grant applications, thus enabling children to gain skills and learn how to made judgements about program funding. Other leading organisations involve children in trialling and testing innovative programs, thus taking account of children’s views and feedback during design and development.

So, what is driving cultural participation in Australia? Both children and cultural organisations are driving participation. By working hand-in-hand, both children and cultural organisations have developed new products, new programs and new levels of engagement. This coming together of the audience and the organisation generates respect and commitment – key ingredients to the sustainability of the relationship.


1 John Hodge, ‘Museums and children in Australia’, Museum 31 (3), 1979, pp. 160–3.

2 Jan Henderson, 'Design Catalysts: Mary Featherston', Australian Design, online publication, viewed 05/05/2009.

3 L Kelly, S Main, S Dockett, B Perry and S Heinrich, 'Listening to young children’s voices in museum spaces', Proceedings of the AARE Conference, 2006.

4 QUT Museums Collaborative, 'Young Children’s Interactive Learning in Museums', ART SPIRT Grant #C10024104, 2000–2003 and L Kelly, G Savage, J Griffin, and S Tonkin, Knowledge Quest: Australian Families Visit Museums, National Museum of Australia and Australian Museum, Canberra/Sydney, 2004.

5 Australian Bureau of Statistics, Arts and Culture in Australia: A Statistical Overview, first edition [4172.0], ABS, Canberra, 2008.

6 1.5 million Australian children (54 per cent) visited a public library and 1.1 million (41 per cent) visited a museum or art gallery. Australian Bureau of Statistics, Children's Participation in Cultural and Leisure Activities [4901.0], ABS, Canberra, 2009. p. 6.

7 Children's Participation in Cultural and Leisure Activities, p.15.

8 B Piscitelli and K Weier, 'Learning with, through, and about art: the role of social interactions', in S Paris (ed.), Perspectives on Object-Centered Learning in Museums, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, NJ, 2002.

9 Queensland Performing Arts Centre, the Australia Council for the Arts and Queensland University of Technology, Children, their parents and the arts: some guidelines for working with parents of young children, Australia Council, Sydney, 2004.

10 The Ipswich Art Gallery (IAG) was known as Global Arts Link (1999–2005).

11 Piscitelli, 'Designing galleries with children in mind', in B Henson (ed.), Exploring culture and community in the 21st century: a new model for public art museums, Global Arts Link, Ipswich, Qld, 1999.

12 Ipswich Art Gallery, Guiding Principles:, 2010.

13 Piscitelli, 'Infants, Toddlers and Contemporary Art', presentation to the International Arts in Early Childhood Conference, National Institute of Education, Singapore, June, 2009.

14 QUT Museums Collaborative (1998–2004) was comprised of researchers from Queensland University of Technology, and Industry Partners from Queensland Museum, Queensland Art Gallery, Queensland Sciencentre and Global Arts Link.

15 B Piscitelli and B Smith, 'Infants, toddlers and contemporary art: bright and shiny research finding', Third International Arts in Early Childhood conference, National Institute of Education, Singapore, June 2009.

16 B Piscitelli, 'Preschoolers and parents as artists and art appreciators', Art Education, 41(4), 1988, pp. 48–55.

17 M Beckmann, 'Engaging a young audience at Queensland Art Gallery', Artlink, 21 (2), 2001, pp. 50–4.

18 B Piscitelli, 'Young children's interactive experiences in museums: engaged, embodied and empowered learners', Curator, 44 (3), 2002, pp. 224–9.

19 M Mallos, M Everett, K Weier, and B Piscitelli, Lost & Found: school holiday audience research report, Queensland Art Gallery/ QUT: internal report, 2004. M Everett, K Weier, and B Piscitelli, Colour: School audience research report, Queensland Art Gallery/Queensland University of Technology, internal report, 2003. M Everett, K Weier, and B Piscitelli, Summer Spectacular: child-family audience research report, Queensland Art Gallery/Queensland University of Technology: internal report, 2003.

20 City of Melbourne, ArtPlay – an inspiring art studio for children: celebrating five years, City of Melbourne, Melbourne, 2009.

21 ArtPlay and University of Melbourne, 'Mapping and augmenting engagement, learning and cultural belonging for children undertaking ArtPlay workshops', ARC Linkage Grant, 2007–2010.

22 J Eisenberg and L van Katwyk, 'The Art Factory: Children's Art Space', room brochure, MRAG, Maitland, NSW, 2009.

23 Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Agency (ACARA), 'The National Curriculum: History', ACARA, Canberra, 2010.

24 For example, Queensland Museum has an extensive loans kit service that distributes kits with specimens, objects and experiments for class and community learning.

25 For example T Albert, Stories through Art. First Australians: Plenty Stories series, Pearson/Rigby, Melbourne, 2009.

26 Print education publications, e.g. J Vyrhtlik and E Schaffer, Kids, Customs and Culture: a teaching resource for years 4–6, Powerhouse Publishing, Sydney, 1995.

27 A Fulton, 'High school students drawn to a whole new world', Sydney Morning Herald, 1 and 2 May 2010, p. 15.

28 B Piscitelli, M Everett, K Weier, and QUT Museums Collaborative, Enhancing Young Children's Museum Experiences: a manual for museum staff, QUT, Brisbane, 2003.

29 United Nations, Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1999.

30 Young People and the Arts Australia, 'Changing Habitats: are children and young people democratising culture?', National Symposium, Brisbane, 2010.

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Cite as: Barbara Piscitelli, 2011, 'What’s driving children’s cultural participation?', in Understanding Museums: Australian Museums and Museology, Des Griffin and Leon Paroissien (eds), National Museum of Australia, published online at ISBN 978-1-876944-92-6