Facilities Fun for Everyone: Using Rhyme to Communicate Museum Rules to Our Youngest Visitors

By Sarah Hamad

While completing a routine inspection of the National Fossil Exhibit in the National Museum of Natural History, conservation staff spot something unusual: a maroon blotch on one fossil’s dark, rough surface. Hypothesizing that the blotch was perhaps candle wax or even some sort of mineralization, they chemically test it to learn its composition. As it turns out, the blotch was primarily sugar— a visitor most likely spilled some sort of Red Slurpee or Kool Aid on the ancient bones. As this dramatic example shows, visitors do not always follow rules such as “No eating or drinking in the exhibit.” In fact, many have thrown gum on outdoor pavement, flung cheeseburger wrappers over barriers, or spilled drinks in the museum. If FM teams could convince visitors to adhere to museum policies more frequently, they may save thousands in cleaning costs each year. A children’s rhyme may be the simple, effective tool that most FM teams are missing.

Museums are popular field trip destinations, and rhyme is an engaging and fun way to communicate information. Educating field trip groups via a children’s rhyme will allow FM teams to engage a large number of visitors at once, thereby increasing policy adherence and achieving cleaner facilities that cost less to maintain. From Schoolhouse Rock songs like “I’m Just a Bill” to DC Metro ads like “Keep Your Eyes Off the Fries”, rhymes are used in a variety of settings to make a message more appealing and memorable, so why not use them in museums too?

Melody Powell, the Director of the Infant and Toddler Programs at the Smithsonian’s Early Enrichment Center (SEEC) and an Early Childhood Educator, agrees that there is something special about rhyme. “It’s just really nice even as an adult to read a book that rhymes to kids. It feels good. And you remember them, rhymes are tied to memory,” she says. Powell says that rhymes are used in her daycare on a daily basis, and that they are especially useful in behavior modification. For instance, she and other teachers at her facility often use small, impromptu rhymes such as “Before you play, you need to throw away!” to encourage good behavior. And these rhymes work. In this case, the child threw away her trash without any need for reprimanding from the teacher. Just as children in this daycare throw their trash away in response to a rhyme, children in field trip groups may avoid littering or chewing gum in response to one too.

With the presence of free online rhyme dictionaries, creating a catchy rhyme does not have to be hard. We here at the Smithsonian Office of Facilities Management and Reliability (OMFR) created the following rhyme to connect with our visitors:

Welcome and hello, we are delighted to have you!
At the Smithsonian, we have nineteen museums and even a zoo.
If you’re looking for oil paintings, you’ll find quite a few!
And IMAX screens, statues, and butterflies too.
These exciting places are clean and neat, thanks to our great crew.
To help keep the Smithsonian tidy, we have a few things you can do:
Chew gum once you get back. Until then, leave it in your backpack.
Keep food and drink away from the collections, and follow the “Please Do Not Touch” signs’ directions.
Run and Jump once you are outside, and recycle unwanted paper with pride.
Thank you! Learn something new! And have fun!
We appreciate your cooperation a great ton.

The rhyme targets children under seven and mentions behaviors that can affect both facilities and museum collections, such as chewing gum indoors. (Gum can end up on carpet or even exhibit boards.) We chose not to include rules such as “No yelling” or “No going up the down escalator” to keep the rhyme short and to maintain a focus on clean buildings and artifacts.

Rhymes can easily be adapted into a variety of media, and with more options, teachers and their students are bound to find several exciting. We are currently adapting this rhyme into a children’s book called Potato the Pig Visits the Museum. However, the options do not have to stop there: it can also be adapted into an animation or a song. But for the less artistic, a simple poster will make an impact too. When several ready-to-go materials are available, busy teachers can dedicate an entire class period to learning about proper museum behavior. Otherwise, many teachers will simply gloss over rules during the bus ride, or they may never mention rules at all.

We believe that rhyme holds tremendous potential to change the way young visitors think of a museum’s policies and its facilities. While a rhyme might not eliminate messes by 100%, even a modest decrease in such a large group will make a noticeable difference. Less resources spent on messes means that more resources can be devoted to backlogged work requests or to special initiatives like a LEED certification. Custodial staff, teachers, docents, and security officers will appreciate the less frequent messes and good behavior too. At the end of the day, facilities managers and staff work to provide an optimal experience for museum visitors, and all efforts and avenues to achieving that goal matter.