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Journal Notes

Written by Jeri Robinson

What follows are the notes taken from a journal I kept during the first days of the exhibit.

April 15th:

Believe it or not, it's been wonderful. So many things have happened. We had a constant flow of people from the time we opened at 10 a.m. until closing at 5 p.m. (we closed a half hour for lunch). It was hard to observe without interacting; will try to do better tomorrow. We can make some good generalizations about it though.

  • Before You Were Three Intro sign: Some adults and a few kids stop to read it all the way through. Most get through the first paragraph and the kids either want to come in or are ready to go somewhere else. I think the text is too long still.
  • Cut outs: Work especially well for adults and older kids. Even babies look through the holes and cry out, "baby!"; parents really have to get down to look in and really let out a howl. Kids think it's funny to see their parents in Pampers. One older lady told me that when she was a baby in 1902, she wore her brother's hand me downs—hand-hemmed diapers and she used them in turn on her own children twenty years later.
  • Famous People: Baby pictures are appealing to all. Little kids like Mister Rogers and Mr. Hooper. (A little German boy called out to his mother, "Sieh, Mutti, Mr. Hooper, Sesame Strasse!"). The Fonz and R2D2 and C3PO are appealing to older kids, while adults get a real kick out of Julia Child and Tip O'Neill.
  • Stories and Pictures of You: Mostly adults read the stories; kids reluctant to write stories but love the drawing. Parents share many anecdotes about their own and their kids' early lives and sometimes help their kids write down a few sentences.
  • The Crib: although it looks a great deal like a giant playpen, it has universal appeal. Kids of all ages have been using it, and it has a different feeling when different groups are using it.

The first people to use it this morning were a mother and two daughters, ages five and eight. The mother seemed to need it more than the kids. She really directed their play, almost play-acting scenes from when they were much younger. She taught them to walk; complained because there was no changing table or diapers or a feeding table or high chair; but in general was excited by the idea.

Crib has some problems for older kids—graphics need to be nearer to the objects, otherwise kids just play around but that's OK, I guess. Babies get in a lot; I didn't even think they would.

In general things are OK. Some visitors are confused when they first come in. Some don't relate the graphics outside the sit-around to what is going on inside. "Is this the nursery?" "Can I rest here?" "When is the movie?" "Is this where the magician is going to be?"

Things happen all around the space. Parents talk to each other as they observe their kids while a) sitting on the sit-around tiers and b) standing around the crib. People read! I can't believe it but they do. Parents can and will read if they have the time to and will interpret for their kids. Heard parents tell kids, "Hey, look over here, let's try the walking stuff." (Parent had spent ten minutes reading the cards before calling it to her kid's attention. Child has meanwhile been drawing.) Parents comment to us and each other about the crib. Think it's a good model for infant daycare or for your home. Its dimensions make a good protected space, without seeming confining. People have suggested many program ideas: trace an infant or child size head to show how much they've grown since birth; oversized baby clothes to try on; a display of actual baby clothes to show growth from newborn to twenty-four-month size undershirts, for example.

Liz Levy does a wonderful "take your first step" program much to the delight of both parents and kids. She gets several kids and "tours" them around the walking sequences, giving them time to do the various movements.

Few people brought photographs but said they would on their next visit if the exhibit was still here. Said information in the paper should have had a reminder.

The people who really got into the activity of the exhibit stayed for fifteen to twenty minutes. Many were repeat visitors, especially those with preschoolers. We could have never predicted what people would do, but boy, am I pleased thus far.

Indeed for me the biggest surprise had been its overwhelming appeal to mothers and the under-six set. I guess I had been "brainwashed" into believing that an exhibit to be successful by museum terms had to appeal to the eight-to-thirteen-year-old set.

All week the exhibit was crowded. Several changes had to be made due to the crowded conditions. Lots of visiting parents were interested and did present their infants in "Ask the Experts" as did several eight and nine year olds with their siblings. We gave up trying to make mobiles since the materials got in the way. Robie and I spent most of the week getting excited by parent interactions and visitors enthusiasm for the space.

My major concern, however, was we hadn't really created an exhibit about child development per se, but had created a unique support system for parents and preschoolers that we had been longing to create in the museum for a long time. It seemed that the combination of the sit-a-round spatial qualities, the subject matter and amount of activity complemented each other in just the right proportions. Of course, everyone wasn't satisfied, but still visitor comments were for the most part pleasant and helpful.

On Thursday, Liz, the coauthor of the book, had arranged for a team from the "CBS Evening News" to come and film in the exhibit. Because everything was going so well, I felt comfortable about their coming. My only hesitation was that the exhibit was scheduled to be de-installed on Monday because the sit-around was booked for another program. Robie and Liz were upset that despite the exhibit's success it was still to be taken out so soon. Visitors too expressed their disappointment that it wouldn't be in longer. But that had been the agreement. My personal feeling was had the exhibit bombed, we would have been all too happy to see it go! Charlie Osgood and his team filmed for most of the morning and left with the promise that they would try to air it over the weekend before the exhibit closed or save it until the exhibit reopened either in the present museum or at the Wharf.

By this time I was sure the exhibit could act as a good support piece to the play space. With that in mind at several times during the week I tried out some of the other parts of the play space activities we had been considering (boxed activity kits, puzzles, blocks, mini workshops for parents). At the end of the nine days (I had worked for fifteen straight days without any time off) I had learned an enormous amount, was extremely tired, but ready to continue.

Next: Reflections