for some families to communicate, contributing to their lack of comfort.
It also appears that perceptions of museums were a barrier. The word “museum” seemed to carry negative connotations for a lot of families. Respondents saw museums as passive, old, and academic versus interactive and engaging. In their minds, museums were associated with places that display old historical artifacts for visitors to view but not necessarily touch and interact with. Many focus group participants did not see how CDM provided more educational and fun experiences; in some cases, they weren’t even sure what the goals of the museum were, despite having visited the museum before participating in the focus group discussions.
Values related to education more broadly may have played a role in these perceptions. Traditionally education is highly valued in Vietnamese culture and is perceived as being the sole responsibility of the school system and the teachers. Parents tend to keep some distance from their children’s education. In addition, to some extent play and learning are seen as two distinct activities. This perception may be one of the reasons that focus group participants were not clear on the goals of the children’s museum, which is intended to be both fun and educational.
Generational differences in the Vietnamese community also emerged. First-generation members, or those born outside the United States, tend to speak Vietnamese in the home and tend to live in more insular communities. They value their cultural traditions and enjoy sharing and talking about their memories of life and traditions in Vietnam.
Individuals who immigrated to the United States as children (referred to as 1.5 generation) and second-generation members (those born in the United States) are more likely to be acculturated, may speak the Vietnamese language but have limited reading and writing abilities, and in general are less tied to Vietnamese customs. They enjoy seeing their traditions reflected in their community and like the idea of exposing their children to the traditions. However, they also value multicultural perspectives and seek to instill in their children respect for all cultures.
Planning an Exhibition for the Vietnamese Community
One of the first major projects for the partners in the initiative was to plan a museum exhibition on mathematics and science called Secrets of Circles. The goal of the exhibition was to introduce young children to the concept of a circle as a geometric shape seen in nature and their everyday life. The exhibition included stations at which visitors can use a compass to draw circles; explore the rolling and spinning patterns of three-dimensional circles; and observe spinning circles that change into cylinders, a sphere, and a torus. Throughout the exhibition, children and their caregivers learn about the math, science, and beauty of this shape.
Based on feedback from the community and their own research, museum designers incorporated some key Vietnamese cultural icons into the exhibition. For example, bamboo was selected as the main building material for the exhibition, and the Vietnamese round boat and a rice sieve were used as examples of circular objects. Museum staff also deliberated about whether to translate the labels into Vietnamese. Despite their awareness that younger Vietnamese people may not read the language, they decided to move forward with the translations. “It was a good decision,” says Martin. “In particular, first-generation Vietnamese were glad to see the text and graphics in their language.”
According to the summative evaluation of Secrets of Circles completed by Allen and Associates, many of the exhibition’s elements succeeded in helping families feel more comfortable at the museum.6