Journey to the Sea: Exploring the environment in a children’s museum [Case Study]

Today’s Guest Post is by Rebecca Shulman Herz, Director of the Peoria PlayHouse Children’s Museum in Peoria, Illinois, USA, and Margaret LeJeune, an image-maker, curator, and educator from Rochester, New York. 


The Peoria PlayHouse Children’s Museum is a 3-year-old museum located in Central Illinois, USA. Our mission is to help children become explorers and creators of the world. Our small exhibit space (8,000 square feet) holds six exhibits, including “The Sand Porch,” a glassed in area of the museum’s porch holding a sand table filled with kinetic sand.


In December 2017, we began talking to a local art professor, Margaret LeJeune, who teaches a class at Bradley University entitled “Art and The Environment.” The class engages students with historical and contemporary environmental issues as the framework for all of the projects.  With an emphasis on conceptual ideas over formal concerns and collaborative production over solo endeavors, creative production often focuses on public art to address human interaction with the environment.

Early in the collaboration Rebecca Herz, the PlayHouse Director, and Margaret discussed creating a work of art on the outdoor plaza behind the museum. But Margaret and her students were inspired to think bigger as they learned about the work of the New Children’s Museum in San Diego, and in particular their exhibit The Wonder Sound. After several brainstorming and development sessions the class asked for permission to transform the sand porch as well as the outside plaza.

On May 4th, the PlayHouse opened the exhibit Journey to the Sea: An S.O.S. from Our Oceans. This temporary installation focuses on the impact of plastic pollution on our oceans. Exhibit components include blue film on the windows, plastic bottles with blue liquid hanging from the ceiling, sculptures of an albatross and a turtle made entirely of recycled plastic, an activity where children can dig in the sand and sort marine creatures from trash, and a reading area stocked with books about the ocean and environmentalism.

Exhibit signs share information about jellyfish blooms, coral reefs, the amount of plastic produced and used by North Americans, and the impact of plastics on ocean animals. Visitors are also encouraged to share their ideas about how they can “reduce, reuse, or recycle plastic, or help our oceans in other ways.”


What are visitors learning?

During the opening week of the exhibition, visitors have left us about 45 messages through the interactive “message in a bottle” component of the installation. These comments offer us a window into how visitors are responding to the exhibit. A lot of visitors have written “not littering” and “picking up trash” on their papers; some of the other comments include (all are quotes directly from the papers):

  • Not using lawn chemicals
  • Not using the face wash with the exfoliating bubbles
  • Ride a bike!
  • No straws
  • Being an example in making wise choices and refusing plastic bags and bottles
  • Make things out of it [plastic]
  • Going to beach clean ups this summer!
  • We can save bottle tops for math games.
  • Helping sick sea creatures. We love sea turtles!
  • Putting trash in a trash can to keep the ocean nice.
  • A blue whale’s tail is as big as a bus. Please do not hunt whales.
  • Using my own water bottle.
  • Not throwing plastic bags in the ocean.

Some of the papers are clearly written by adults; others are clearly by children, and some are parents writing on behalf of their child, indicating the child’s name and age. This shows us that the exhibit is successfully inspiring parents and children to have conversations about the environment.

“Picking up garbage and doing the right thing. It keeps the ocean and nature clean.” – Peter age 4.

What did we learn?

This collaborative project was transformational for the artists and for museum staff, although in very different ways.

Margaret has discovered the joys of exhibit-making, and is now hoping to do more of this in the future. Student artists who took little responsibility for the project at the outset have stepped up to become leaders. PlayHouse staff have made an effort to rid the PlayHouse of single-use plastics, most notably trading in the plastic utensils used for birthday parties for silverware, which is washed at the end of the day in the museum’s dishwasher. And Rebecca now carries a reusable coffee tumbler with her, and leaves reusable containers for leftovers in her car.

We also encountered some of the ironies inherent in creating and marketing an exhibit promoting environmentalism. While 75% of the materials used were recycled, we still ordered and used large rolls of plastic cling, and other materials that ultimately create more plastic for our landfills. We printed exhibit brochures, and the slips of paper on which people can write comments. One of our visitors noticed this, and wrote on her paper that we can help save the ocean by “Stop wasting paper ;)”

Herz, Rebecca

Rebecca Shulman Herz is the Director of the Peoria PlayHouse Children’s Museum. Previous work includes running the Learning Through Art school outreach program at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and serving as Head of Education at the Noguchi Museum. She is the author of the book Looking at Art in the Classroom as well as numerous articles, and writes the blog Museum Questions.

Margaret Journey to the Sea

Margaret LeJeune is an image-maker, curator, and educator from Rochester, New York. Working predominately with photographic-based mediums, LeJeune explores issues of gender, community,and the environment. Her work has been widely exhibited at museums and galleries across the country including The Griffin Museum of Photography, The Center for Fine Art Photography, Newspace Gallery, Workspace Gallery, Morean Arts Center, and the Candler Field Museum. LeJeune currently serves as Associate Professor of photography at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois.

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  1. Monica Gorgas

    Excelente experience. The concept that Learning is a process that evolves children and curators is a very good one!

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