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By Janice O’Donnell, Executive Director, Providence Children’s Museum

A recent Wall Street Journal article – “Children’s Museums Brand Exhibits with Corporate Sponsorships”– discussed the prevalence of commercial identities in museums, especially children’s museums, across the country. Visitors to children’s museums in many cities make pizza in a replica of a chain pizza parlor, shop in a miniature grocery store named for a regional chain, and try out the ATM at the bank with a national brand. It’s obvious why the sponsors like having their brands prominently featured in a place that attracts thousands of children and parents – it’s like product placement in movies. And it’s understandable why museums, always in need of funding and grateful to the corporations that provide it, go along with this trend.

Dec2014-BlocksAt Providence Children’s Museum, we’re just as grateful for and just as in need of corporate funding, but we don’t do brands. From the Internet to television to toys, children are the target of commercial interests. The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) cites research that shows that very young children cannot distinguish between TV programming and ads and that, until about age 8, children do not understand the persuasive intent of advertising. This is research that corporations use for their benefit. There’s certainly nothing illegal about this and arguably nothing wrong with it either. It’s how our economy works.

But I would argue that, while for-profit corporations exist to make a profit, museums do not. Nonprofit children’s museums exist for the benefit of children and their families, caregivers and teachers. So our first concern must be what is good for children. Many child advocates believe, as I do, that the commercialization of childhood is NOT good for kids. CCFC cites research that shows that marketing to children is a factor in the child obesity epidemic, that it encourages eating disorders, and promotes sexualized stereotypes, as well as violent behavior. So at Providence Children’s Museum we have made a commitment to being brand-free. Yes, we are deeply grateful to our corporate supporters and very happy to acknowledge their generosity on donor labels, in the media and on our website. But we will not help them sell themselves to children. One of our Board members, who is also a mom and frequent visitor, calls our museum “a commercial-free zone.” And we’re proud to be just that.

For more information on marketing to children visit commercialfreechildhood.org and join the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.

Janice O’Donnell recently left Providence Children’s Museum, after 35 years of visionary leadership, unwavering passion and tireless commitment to children and families. See an interview with Janice and read her farewell message to learn about her legacy of play and learning.

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