Enriching representation: finding the voice and perspective of children in California history museums

This dissertation explores how California history museums represent the history of children and childhood. This work is inspired by earlier studies in the fields of anthropology, sociology, museum studies, and public history that question and analyze the underrepresentation or misrepresentation of groups, such as women and ethnic minorities, in US museums. How US museums represent children and their history has yet to receive scholarly attention. This dissertation contributes to filling this gap in the literature and bases its conclusions on a state-wide survey of more than 200 California museums, interviews with 110 museum professionals or volunteers, site visits to 40 museums, and in depth field research at 10 museums. I argue that too often the experiences, stories, and contributions of children are overlooked, absent, or marginalized in California history museums. When representations of children’s history do emerge, they often reflect ideals rather than realities, universalize the historical experience of childhood, and, in the process, romanticize the past. This dissertation acknowledges obstacles that get in the way of richer representation and offers potential solutions. During my study it became clear that multiple meanings of children’s history are at work in the California museum community: the history of children, history for children, and history by children. This dissertation examines each in turn and demonstrates how conceptions of children, many with deep historical roots, influence not only museum exhibitions but also programming for children. Central to this dissertation is the study of history by children at the Pasadena Museum of History, which provides middle-school students the opportunity to teach history as docents to younger children. Drawing upon my three years of participant observation at this site and interviews with forty middle-school students, I contend that inviting children to participate, create, and co-produce in museum spaces improves children’s attitudes towards museums, enriches representation, and brings to light perspectives that may otherwise remain marginalized.