How do you make history interesting and fun for children under 10? What do families want to see in exhibits geared towards young visitors? Through History Clubhouse, an exhibit designed by and for St. Louis families, Missouri History Museum staff crafted a unique experience for children by utilizing feedback from them and their caregivers.
The initial idea was simple – to build an exhibit for kids. Existing programming was drawing a number of young people, and staff saw the success of kids’ spaces at other St. Louis institutions. This exhibit had to be more than just a play space: MHM wanted kids to learn about the history of the region, even if it was so much fun that they didn’t realize they were learning. So more than two years before the new exhibit opened, MHM started talking to parents, teachers, and kids. They held focus groups where they asked families to explore St. Louis places and tell them what they would like to know more about. Informed by those early discussions, MHM opened a 6,000 square foot prototype gallery for more than five months in 2014 to showcase some of the ideas for the new space, but, most importantly, to ask kids and their caregivers what they would like to see in the permanent History Clubhouse. Using those comments along with observations of how families were using the prototype gallery, staff developed the permanent exhibit which opened in June 2015. The History Clubhouse allows kids to play in four different places in the region. They can ride a trolley through downtown St. Louis, eat at a café at the 1904 World’s Fair, pilot a steamboat from the time when the river was the city’s main highway, and catch fish in a stream near early Native American mounds. Staff also created a room for programming, reading, and crafts.
But the project did not stop with the exhibit opening. This space has allowed MHM to develop an expanded slate of programs designed to engage their youngest visitors with St. Louis history and to encourage the habit of going to museums. Programs include everything from bilingual storytelling to a theater production that features the gargoyle mascot teaching kids about local architecture. As soon as they walk into the museum, families now see that the Missouri History Museum is not just a welcoming place but that they are constantly looking for new ways to share St. Louis history with all ages.