Tropenmuseum Junior

Mariëlle Pals

Tropenmuseum Junior

Linnaeusstraat 2, 1092 CK Amsterdam

Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Children's Museum Award 2012

How to engage young visitors?

Tropenmuseum Junior: a world to explore.
Tropenmuseum Junior (TMJ) is a museum especially targeted at 6 to 13-year-olds. It is part of the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, which is one of the leading ethnographical museums in Europe. Ever since its foundation in 1975, TMJ has been a strong advocate of interactive exhibitions and multidisciplinary programmes for several target groups. Over the years, we have developed our own working method. Both our methodology and the quality of our exhibitions and programmes are held in high regard internationally and are an example to the museum field worldwide.

Along with exhibitions and programmes, we have developed a range of products: books, websites, educational school materials, workshops, serious games, exchange programmes and theatre productions. Apart from this, we have initiated several projects in the field of international cooperation and transfer of expertise and exhibitions. An inspiring example is the collaboration with Surinam where TMJ was involved in setting up a new children's museum, ls"Villa Zapakara', in Paramaribo. In recent years three exhibitions have also been shown in Surinam as remakes - and with considerable success.

Children's Museum Award 2012
In 2012 TMJ received the Children's Museums Award, launched for the first time by Hands On! International, the Association for Children's Museums and the European Museum Academy. The award provides an opportunity to praise those who have changed the course of children's museums' thinking and practice with bright ideas, creativity and innovative programmes. We received the Children''s Museum Award 2012: "as a recognition of excellence, imaginative presentation, innovative interpretative approach - a high degree of creativity and effectiveness in the design of programmes, a model to be followed by many other museums".

Museum practice
Trying to make the unfamiliar familiar is fundamental to us. Every three years a small part of the Tropenmuseum (400 m2 of gallery space) is transformed with great precision: a tea house in Iran, the palace of Ghana's Ashanti King, or a representation of the city of Bombay. For a few hours children inhabit this setting, together with well-trained guides. They live a deep cultural experience and become part of a specific culture for a brief time. The stories and activities, in combination with the hands-on collection, are presented with great feeling for the world children experience. At the same time we endeavour to represent culture as respectfully as possible.

Beginning of the museum
Tropenmuseum Junior - the name was chosen in a children's competition - started in 1975. Museums gave little consideration to children in those days. When TMJ started, it was the first children's museum in Europe. Financial support came from the national government and various funds.

First we had to counteract some myths about what children are really interested in and therefore what should be represented in a children's museum: "children are mainly interested in toys", or "children are interested in other children". But children are not primarily interested in children. They are interested in real life and everything that goes with it. Moreover, the objects in the Tropenmuseum's historical collection were not suitable for children, mostly because they could not be touched. Museum objects have to be suitable for our interactive method. We have therefore been travelling, collecting contemporary items and immaterial things like stories, songs, music, dance and activity ideas, all related to the present time. To do justice to the culture exhibited, all these components are brought together in context, not only in the exhibition, but also in related programmes and products.

Relevance of the museum philosophy

As part of a museum that focuses on world cultures, our first aim was - and still is - to contribute to knowledge, understanding and appreciation of cultural diversity. In TMJ children experience that it is worthwhile and fun to embrace the unknown with curiosity and an open mind. By presenting different values, ideas, religions, traditions and lifestyles, children reflect upon their own perspectives. This transcultural practice is important; a country that is home to almost two hundred nationalities and marked by a colonial past needs cultural exploration, reflection and cultural critique.

"I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand"
Convinced that true understanding comes from active involvement, each exhibition comes alive with its visitors. We focus on a meaningful and memorable experience of a culture by choosing a universal theme and presenting interesting aspects of this culture as part of day-to-day life. The theme is integrated into personal stories, the hands-on collection, multidisciplinary activities, interactive technology and a theatrical and immersive exhibition design. Participating in activities from a particular culture creates a sense of ownership; children become part of that culture. This also contributes to the process of acknowledgement of a shared world.

Different from the others
Personal mediation is crucial for us. Life elsewhere cannot be explained in general terms. By being specific and personal, children make connections with their own lives. That''s why the staff who work with the children are our most interactive medium. They tell personal stories, play music, dance and inspire visitors to participate actively. These social actors are not only teaching about "another" culture, they share the content in a lively way so that children become more mindful, for example, of their own multicultural identity.

A visit to TMJ means participating: joining one of the programmes. Exhibition programmes are developed for various target groups, focusing on children aged 6 to 13 and families. On weekdays school groups attend our school programmes. All schools receive educational material (including a book for every child) and lessons to prepare for their visit. This preparation extends the museum visit by approximately 10-15 hours. During weekends and holidays we welcome children and families to attend our junior and family programmes.

Unique quality
TMJ's particular quality - also acknowledged by our visitors - is the enhancement of empathy, the embodiment of socio-cultural practices and learning; the way children become active museum users and perform sociality while learning about world cultures. TMJ is not simply a place for presenting objects, but rather a constellation of wonder, curiosity, intense attention and personal interaction.

Professional excellence
Exhibitions and programmes are designed on the basis of longstanding anthropological and artistic research combined with collaborative practices in specific cultural arenas. Initially organized as a series of activities - like many museums do with children - the museum programme became an entire choreography, a theatre piece with a scenography in a space with a constantly changing light and sound design. Moreover, it allowed visitors to add something to the exhibitions, as they became owners of the space.

Engaging human resources
TMJ works with people from different countries around the world. The well-trained exhibition staff (12 people) are mainly from the culture exhibited. They are personally connected to the exhibition subject and add their valuable knowledge, expertise and personality to the programme. The design of the exhibitions and the mediation concept are based more on cultural co-creation than on a representation made by museum staff. We want to be an inclusive and multi-vocal museum. A form of affectivity already starts in the personal connections that are made while doing research and travelling in the region chosen for the exhibition.

Latest experience
While developing our latest exhibition ls"MixMax Brasil', a new, unique type of international co-creation developed with the Brazilian partners. The exhibit was largely financed by the federal state of Pernambuco, which also helped the museum to collect inspiring art, objects and stories from over 30 Brazilian artists. Objects were sometimes specially made for the museum. The design, by two Brazilian designers, relates culture with sustainability. It is an innovative artistic mix of cultural heritage, waste material and street art. The whole collaboration with Pernambuco was based on reciprocity: our partnerships offered the Brazilian artists the exposure they deserve at home and abroad. By this international exchange and co-creation, we wanted to avoid stereotypical representation, share knowledge, contribute to international exchange and cooperation, and at the same time stimulate the cash flow. Best of all, when ls"MixMax Brasil' is replaced by a new exhibition in Amsterdam, this Brazilian story will continue at the Villa Zapakara in Surinam as a new collaboration.

What makes learning fun?
Curiosity: surprise and intrigue the visitor
Confidence: help visitors feel safe and smart
Challenge: encourage visitors to do or learn something new
Control: help visitors feel ls"in charge'
Play: encourage playfulness and sensory exploration
Communication: stimulate meaningful conversations


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