Fostering Engagement through Documentation

The Democracy Inquiry Group (DIG)—made up of college faculty in teacher education—recently invited museum educators to continue a dialogue exploring the question: “How can documentation engage the community to make children and learning public and visible?”

Museums represented include: Boston Children’s Museum, deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, The Discovery Museums, Museum of Science, Peabody Essex Museum.

College faculty represented include: Lesley University, Harvard University, University of Massachusetts-Amherst, and Wheelock College.

DIG Meeting
DIG Meeting

Here are some of the intriguing questions that were discussed among the participants, along with some of their responses and thoughts about ways to enhance family museum visits and learning through documentation.

What are shared overarching questions about engaging communities with documentation? What’s the difference between taking photos and documentation?

  • If documentation is a kind of “game” metaphor, how can we express the rules so that people stay in the game?
  • We need to set up a construct where the rules of the game are clear and we communicate these to our participants. I want you to see my documentation and I also want to see someone else’s? Right now it’s the “wild west” to Instagram photos!
  • What language are we using? Visitors post photos on social media but how can we develop a language that works for everyone as a form of documenting learning?
  • I see we are creating a shared vocabulary. A Reggio-inspired outcome that is specific that doesn’t make sense to others. What is the difference between a photo and documentation? What is the intrinsic value when you want to play the game?
  • Some families may react negatively to “jargon” related to education; there is a distinction between photographs and documentation that is interesting to tackle.
  • A suggestion would be to look at what you are calling documentation – such as the Boston Children’s Museum Twitter feed – and see if that would inform this conversation. What would be the next steps? What would you explain to a family? What are the rules of the game?
  • Why do I care about documentation in a museum? Documentation can lead to exhibit design questions, which can be generated from user-designed documentation.

How can we facilitate the shift of a photograph as souvenir to an authentic representation of an experience?

  • Does it make a difference if the photo is of yourself or someone else? How do you get someone to look at photos of someone else?
  • Photos can be tagged and placed on the museum website – but is anyone looking at those photos and interpreting them?
  • Is there a time in the museum for visitors to create a little album they take home with them? In order to take this album home it must be narrated – to tell a story of what you did with your child. This might change the idea of a photo vs. documentation.

Is there a museum educator “fantasy” of what you would like to see in documentation from a family and their museum experience?

  • We documented a recent artist creating floor-to-ceiling murals with colored tape. The artists and visitors documented. Later in the day, after the experience, a 5-year-old girl created her own mural at home that we happened to find posted on Instagram.
  • One of my fantasies for visitors starts in the car ride home with a discussion on the experience in an art museum visit. How can we support parents in asking questions to start a conversation? What did the experience mean to individuals in the family? What happened when they came home? Is there a mechanism to start that context in the museum, then in the car ride home and then once they are home?
  • In my fantasy, there is a giant photo/video of a particular child – who can see this coming in – “that’s me!!” We can all see how the child has grown, over time from repeat visits.

How do we get the family to connect to a larger community – a museum family – and not for the visit to feel isolated? In other words, how do we develop a participatory museum construct – I am participating in a larger sense?

  • Promoting the family experience versus the community experience. Can you target the community without attending to the family first?
  • When I go to a museum with my kids – I wonder what does the museum want from me – could there be an explicit invitation to families?
  • We need to be intentional – an intentional invitation to look at images so people can comment on them; a wall that is part of the museum for visitors to see each other’s thoughts.
  • In Reggio they would not document if you had just individual activities. It makes me think of a comment by a colleague – “you have to have something worth documenting.”

How do we inspire and communicate to our visitors to be life-long learners? I am wondering if documentation is the tool to communicate this?

  • As a visitor, if I saw in bright big words – What have you learned in the museum? It gets to the point of the visitor to think of themselves as an active role as a visitor.
  • It connects to this idea of community and to understand each other.


  • I really like the idea of telling a story. First visitors or multiple time visitors – you may be on different chapters but the book is not finished.
  • I think there is a story to a one-day visit – would that need a slightly different prompt? Visitors from out of town a first and maybe only visit can have a story.
  • Creating a useful metaphor like a game, with a common language, across different groups of people. I want to think more of the “game of documentation” to communicate the intentions, purposes with the people I am working with.
  • The importance of being intentional and the purpose when exploring documentation.
  • Why aren’t we being really explicit and intentional, it’s silly why we haven’t asked? Can we be transparent on why we are asking? We might also be delivering a prompt that might encourage people to pause and reflect on our purpose.
  • I’m thinking of a concrete aspect of social media – it struck me when you said who is using social media? Public relations staff and not education staff. Maybe we add – what did you learn at deCordova today? What could that trigger?

Stephanie Cox Suarez is an associate professor in the Wheelock College Special Education Department. She teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in special education assessment, children with special needs, portfolio development, and supervision of students in their practica and internships. She is the founder of the Documentation Studio at Wheelock College, where research includes working with preservice and inservice teachers to document, share, and make visible classroom learning and teaching. Visit the Documentation Studio at Wheelock College web page.