The forgotten museum visitors: grandfathers

Sharing knowledge and wisdom at the museum

[Image: M. Beckwith - Unsplash]

Research into the experiences of older visitors to Melbourne Museum has opened a window into understanding a neglected audience group: grandfathers visiting the museum with their grandchildren. Today, museums can be understood as places for social inclusion, enriched learning and intergenerational relationships in age-friendly settings.With this in mind, a collaborative pilot project between the University of Melbourne and Melbourne Museum[1] conducted interviews in 2017 with museum visitors aged 60 and over to find out how visitor experiences could be enhanced for the older audience. Of the interview participants, one third were on a museum visit with grandchildren.

The project team continues to tease out the implications of the findings and they have connected one of the key themes – museums as places of intergenerational experiences – with current concerns about older men’s health and risk of social isolation following retirement from the workforce. Museums have the potential to offer an avenue to improve men’s wellbeing at a time when they are likely to be seeking meaningful new interests and social spheres. Nearly half of the project participants were men. Of these 19 men, six were at the museum with a young grandchild or grandchildren and many others talked about museum visits with grandchildren or other young family members.

Understanding more about grandfathers on visits with grandchildren is significant within the context of Melbourne Museum’s knowledge that between one third and one half of their visitors aged 60 years and over visit with grandchildren – a sizeable proportion of the total audience. However, little is known about these intergenerational visits from the perspective of grandfathers.

When grandfathers engage with children’s learning through museum visits, they are provided with multiple opportunities to share their knowledge and wisdom in a generative elder role. In this project, the grandfathers visiting the museum talked about their role as teachers and guides as they encouraged grandchildren to become more curious about the world around them and helped them to understand the exhibits. They also spoke of playing the role of custodians of family history, passing on knowledge within the context of the displays and installations or sharing details of life experiences. Such interaction and engagement with grandchildren strengthened enjoyment of the visit and some grandfathers spoke of the pleasure of seeing museum exhibits both through the children’s eyes and their own.

The findings of the study open up possibilities and thinking around how museums might better support older men to have a purposeful and respected elder role when they visit museums in the company of their grandchildren. For older men, the role is not restricted to grandfathers but can also encompass older men who have similar intergenerational roles with young children in their lives. For those men who may be struggling as they transition to retirement, a more active grandfather role “has the potential to fulfil not only family needs for support, but also men’s needs to find new and rewarding activities outside of the workplace”[2]. And time is a resource that many grandfathers may now have in contrast to their experience of raising their own children. The prevalence of grandfathers – and grandmothers – attending museums with grandchildren suggests there is value in building supporting materials and developing public programs to explicitly meet their needs and facilitate intergenerational learning.

According to the pilot project’s chief investigator, Associate Professor Andrew Jamieson, object handling has rich potential in this learning space. Andrew teaches archaeology at the University of Melbourne and uses object-centred learning approaches in his teaching because students experience a more profound sense of discovery when they can handle artefacts: they can be authentic objects or replicas. He proposes that museums dedicate intergenerational spaces for object handling with programs to guide and foster the object interactions between grandparents and grandchildren. An object-centered approach – such as ‘touch tours’ or ‘object handling tables’ – is well suited to museum programming for older men because hands-on experiences can cater to visitors at all levels of education and do not necessarily require existing knowledge or expertise. Development of intergenerational programs using object-centred learning would contribute to the ongoing transformation of museums from traditions of ‘see and don’t touch’ to contemporary spaces of ‘see and touch’.

Older male museum visitors and their role in intergenerational visits remains an insufficiently explored area deserving further investigation. Grandfathers are typically forgotten or overlooked in museum programming. The project represents a valuable first step in understanding how museums can contribute to the quality of intergenerational visits of grandfathers with their grandchildren and is also likely to be relevant to the experience of grandmothers. As one grandfather articulated in his interview, “I do a lot of babysitting and well-designed intergenerational programs would make visiting the museum much more desirable.”

[1]The project was supported by the McCoy Seed Fund Scheme, an initiative to develop collaborative research projects between Museums Victoria and the University of Melbourne.

[2]Moore, S., & Rosenthal, D. (2017). Grandparenting: Contemporary perspectives. Milton Park, UK: Routledge, p. 111.

For more details contact: Andrew Jamieson

[Source: Dr Alison Herron, Department of Social Work, The University of Melbourne & Associate Professor Andrew Jamieson, School of Historical and Philosophical Studies, University of Melbourne]