Learning About Each Other: Interpreting Culture for Children

Americans find it difficult to talk about race. Adults find it even harder to discuss issues of racial and ethnic identity with children, who are still figuring out their own identities and where they fit in the world.[1] In Boston Black: A City Connects, the Boston Children’s Museum teaches children about the history of African American communities in Boston through play. Children do their hair at a hair salon, shop at a Dominican grocery store, and discover that it’s ok to talk about race.


Children playing in “Boston Black” exhibition, Boston Children’s Museum

Founded in 1913, the Boston Children’s Museum is the second-oldest children’s museum in the world. Its mission is to “engage children and families in joyful discovery experiences that instill an appreciation of our world, develop foundational skills, and spark a lifelong love of learning.”[2] When developing the exhibit, museum staff wanted children to understand that African Americans have been in Boston for a long time and that they have an important part of Bostonian society.[3] In the exhibit, which opened in 2004, children explore spaces that have historically been important to black communities.[4] While the children are playing in the exhibit, they are not only learning about black culture, but also developing a variety of skills, both physical and verbal.


The exhibit’s purpose is to start a discussion about “race, ethnicity, identity, and community” with the children who visit the museum.[5] The exhibit does not treat Boston’s black community as a monolithic entity, but includes sections relating to black communities from different countries. For example, one area in the exhibit allows children to pretend they are preparing for an Afro- Caribbean Carnival, while another is a Boston barbershop. By playing in spaces from different black communities in Boston, the children learn how those communities are different from each other. These spaces show children that there is diversity within cultures and that talking about and asking questions about race should be normal.[6]


To celebrate Black History Month in 2017, the Boston Children’s Museum held a series of programs called Living in Colors: Celebrating Black Life in Boston Black: A City Connects and other exhibits. The programs covered several different topics, such as music and science. They included a Haitian dance class, sessions with authors, and an opportunity to learn about astronaut Mae Jemison.[7] Because the museum held a variety of types of programming, they not only celebrated different aspects of black cultures and successful black individuals, but also appealed to children with many different interests and learning styles. The museum also held a Block Party in the exhibit, where visitors were invited to “co-create” an experience where they could “meet…share stories, and…learn about each other.”[8] The party reinforced the idea that we should not be afraid of talking about race in a fun environment.


Dominican Grocery Store in Boston Black (Photo Courtesy, Michael Dwyer, New York Times)

The museum is currently looking to update the exhibit and widen its focus by including elements representing Asian and Hispanic cultures. While the museum is still in the fundraising stage of this eighteen-month process, the exhibit already has a Dominican grocery store where the products are all labeled in both English and Spanish, which is one of the most popular areas in the exhibit.[9] Although expanding the exhibit will allow children to learn about more cultures, it is likely children will not be able to learn as much about any particular ethnic group as in its current layout.


However, changing the exhibit fits within its stated mission of creating a dialogue about race and identity. When asked why the museum was making these changes, its president, Carole Charnow, talked about how the need for representation is more important than ever. She said that “this work is extremely important, with the public discourse that has become so intolerant. We hope we can work towards community engagement, inclusion and a welcome environment for all races, ethnicities, genders and families.”[10] When children of color see their own stories in this exhibit at the Boston Children’s Museum, it shows them that their culture is worth exhibiting. Although changing the exhibit’s focus will not permit museum staff to include as much information on black culture, it will allow Hispanic and Asian children to see themselves in a popular museum exhibit.


However it changes in the future, over the past thirteen years, Boston Black: A City Connects has let African American children see themselves represented in a museum. In the exhibit, both black and white children can have fun while they learn that there is not just one “black experience,” even for African Americans who all grow up in the same city.

[1] Gail Ringel, “Designing Exhibits for Kids: What Are We Thinking?” (paper presented at From Content to Play: A Symposium, Los Angeles, California, June 4-5, 2005).

[2] “About Boston Children’s Museum,” Boston Children’s Museum, http://www.bostonchildrensmuseum.org/about.

[3] Ringel, “Designing Exhibits for Kids.”

[4] Celina Colby, “City of Diversity: Changes Coming to Beloved Children’s Museum Exhibit,” The Bay State Banner, July 1, 2016, http://baystatebanner.com/news/2016/jul/01/city-diversity-changes-coming-beloved-childrens-mu/.

[5] “Boston Black,” Boston Children’s Museum, http://www.bostonchildrensmuseum.org/exhibits-programs/exhibits/boston-black.

[6] Ringel, “Designing Exhibits for Kids.”

[7] “Black History Month,” Boston Children’s Museum, http://www.bostonchildrensmuseum.org/blackhistorymonth; “Black History Month Celebration,” Boston Children’s Museum, http://www.bostonchildrensmuseum.org/calendar/black-history-month-celebration-0.

[8] “Our City Block Party,” Boston Children’s Museum, http://www.bostonchildrensmuseum.org/calendar/our-city-block-party-0.

[9] Colby, “City of Diversity.”

[10] Colby, “City of Diversity.”


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