Children’s understanding of animal taxidermy enhances their museum experience

Friday, 21 September 2018

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Young children have a surprisingly sophisticated understanding of animal taxidermy, a study by an Oxford Brookes University academic and the Oxford University Museum of Natural History has found.

Dr Louise Bunce, Senior Lecturer in Human Development at Oxford Brookes University led the study and says that the findings are good news for museums because understanding whether or not an animal was once real, has an impact on their learning experience.

Visit a museum of natural history, and you’ll come face to face with some of the world’s exotic, dangerous, and even extinct animals. As adults, we can learn a lot about the natural world from these animals partly because we appreciate that these animals are ‘the real thing’ and that they have undergone a scientific process of preservation.

However, little is known about what children think when they encounter museum animals– do they think that they are looking at animals that were once alive and kicking (‘the real thing’), or do they think that they are looking at old manufactured models (not real)? If they think the latter, then they are less likely to learn from their museum visit. 

The research team set out to explore these issues and tested over 200 children who were visiting the museum. The children were asked whether they thought a taxidermied rabbit was real or not, and whether they thought that various properties applied to it, such as whether it had a heart inside and whether it had real fur.

This is great news because it shows that young children, like adults, are capable of understanding that the animals on display in museums are ‘real’. This means that they are more likely to be inspired by them and learn from their museum visit.

Dr Louise Bunce, Senior Lecturer in Human Development, Oxford Brookes University

The study found that only approximately 10% of children aged 4 – 5-years-old judged taxidermy as ‘real’ because it had authentic properties. However, this increased to approximately one third of children aged between 6 – 10-years-old. Although the younger children understood that they were looking at dead animals, they did not seem to appreciate that there was anything special about them.

To see if young children could be given a helping hand, a sub-group of children in the study were given the same questions about the taxidermied rabbit, but this time they were also given a realistic toy rabbit compare it with. Dr Louise Bunce explained: “We know that young children have a sophisticated understanding of what is real and pretend in their toy play and when engaging in pretence, so we expected that the pretend toy rabbit would help them to interpret taxidermy as ‘the real thing’”.

And this is exactly what they found. This time, nearly 70% of 4 – 5-year-old children explained that the taxidermy rabbit was ‘real’ because it had authentic properties, in other words, they understood that it was ‘the real thing’.

“This is great news”, explained Dr Louise Bunce, “because it shows that young children, like adults, are capable of understanding that the animals on display in museums are ‘real’. This means that they are more likely to be inspired by them and learn from their museum visit.”

The study is been published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, and is entitled Still Life? Children’s understanding of the reality status of museum taxidermy.

Image credit: Oxford Museum of Natural History www.oum.ox.ac.uk