With an ocean-obsessed preschooler, we have been visiting a lot of aquariums. At our most recent stop, my husband turned to me and said “This one is really different! There are so many things you can touch.”
He was right, there were easily 5 or 6 touch tanks with animals of all descriptions. You know touch is a primary focus when one open (but not for touching) tank had a home-printed sign saying “For Your Safety Please Do NOT Reach Into Tank.”
It did seem like it would change the experience, but as I watched my 4 year old run to a tank, dip his hand in and then dash away I wondered what he was really getting out of it.
Too often in the museum world, “interactive” is equated with getting to touch stuff. I understand the impulse, museums are generally “hands off” experiences and it is good to be able to break down that barrier.
But, that physical contact has to have a purpose. Why are people touching an object? Are they able to learn something from that interaction? Does it change their perception? Make a concept accessible that wasn’t before? Or, is it just an excuse to let them do something normally “forbidden.”
In other part of the aquarium there was a tank that you could crawl under and poke your head up into a bubble in the floor. For the first time in our visit, my son became totally still. He turned slowly taking in all of the angles from his “fish-eye view.” Then, the questions and observations started coming. “Mama! Look at that!” “Mama, why do you think….” For ten minutes we crouched under that tank, not touching but truly interacting.
That is what an interactive experience can look like. It gives you a new perspective, engages senses that aren’t tapped into in other parts of the exhibit and sparks wonder. Often, that can happen when you allow visitors to get their hands on things, but that isn’t the only way. It can be through “photography welcome” signs, or guiding questions or docent interaction.
Museums should continue to focus on how to make our exhibits interactive, but we need to shift our definition of what that can be from just “please touch.”