Sunday, 22 December 2013

Kids in Museums

Picture: Kids in Museums
There is happily no debate about the merits of introducing children to art galleries. But there ought to be more of a debate about how art galleries should cater for children, so I welcomed a recent exchange in the Scotsman between Tiffany Jenkins and Dea Birkett. Birkett founded the campaigning group Kids in Museums, which has an ambitious agenda for remaking museums around the needs of children and families. But the compelling point made by Jenkins is that they fail to take children seriously.

Birkett's response to Jenkins misunderstands the challenge as being from the 'culture isn't for children camp'. But the only person who seems to think that is Birkett herself, who espouses entertainment rather than culture. She mocks people who might be impressed by a Tintoretto and is excited only when the audience reacts noisily. Burkett raves about opera for the under twos, who yelp and dribble, and she asks, "which opera would you rather be at? One full of people who've paid an awful lot to feel very little. Or one where the audience is so entranced and enthralled that they forget to eat their plastic pot of mashed banana?" Well, I know which I'd choose!

Just because grown ups aren't reacting visibly and volubly doesn't mean they're 'feeling little'. I feel a great deal, though I rarely yelp or dribble. Even people who do not themselves react emotionally to opera or to painting recognise that others might value the experience even if they're not shouting about it. Birkett seems to appreciate culture only vicariously, enjoying the reaction of the audience rather than art itself.

Kids in Museums does a disservice to both kids and museums. Their drive to re-orient museums around children spoils the experience for adult visitors who are frustrated by dumbed-down displays. But they also treat kids shabbily, because they fail to recognise their potential to appreciate great art. Some of the Kids in Museums demands are banal ('say hello'), some are misguided ('say "please touch"'), but most are simply extrinsic to the museum. 'Conversations between generations' should not be at the heart of what museums do, museums are not teenage hangout zones and whilst I like coffee and cake as much as the next person, I don't judge a museum by its cafĂ©. Surely the focus should be on the thing that you can't do anywhere else - to appreciate great art. 

Museums are not just places where kids can play and hang out. They should be places that people want to return to throughout their lives - with family, with friends or alone. You can get more and more out of the experience by returning and engaging with the exhibits. Of course it's fun and enjoyable. But to get the greatest rewards does require an element of discipline, learning the difference between good and great art. If museums were really just about encouraging family conversation it wouldn't matter if they displayed Rembrandt or Rolf Harris. Entertaining babies is different from mounting a great opera, and it's demeaning that a great opera company is reduced to amusing children.  

I don't think it's right to say that museums are exclusively adult spaces or child spaces, although there are norms of behaviour that children will find restrictive. It's a bit like places of worship - not in the sense of being dreadfully solemn all the time (churches and temples and synagogues and mosques are places of joy as well as ritual, social spaces as well as sacred spaces), but in the sense that children are initiated into their practices. The idea of debating whether children should be welcomed or merely tolerated in a church is absurd. They are integral. But they have a higher purpose than family entertainment, and so do museums.

Kids in Museums has encouraged needless conflict between adults and children in museums with its noisy and noisome demand that every museum be turned into a children's playground. Visitors' needs will be served better if museums focused more on their collections and less on their visitors. 


  1. Dear Michael,
    I always enjoy learning from your posts. Reading this one and the essays that prompted it made me think that the underlying question is this: what is the culture of museum-going? Is it a specific and well-defined culture, or is it a flexible and broadly inclusive culture?

    The answer is different for different institutions. I am comfortable with the diversity of cultures, but I wish institutions would be more overt about their idiosyncratic cultures. For example, it would be easy for a museum website or pamphlet to state: "this is a place for considered contemplation, which we believe is best done in silence" or, alternatively: "this is a place for all forms of engagement, which may include some shouts and giggles." The default, instead of being clear, is to leave it up to all of us to guess and then be offended when our preconceptions don't match others'.

    To me, it's a good idea for a museum to advertise "loud hours," or "takeover day" or "quiet area." It helps visitors understand what is expected. We can't assume that everyone has grown up visiting museums and internalizing a (no-longer consistent) set of cultural norms. Being clear helps everyone--even if the result is that some people feel that a particular institution, event, or exhibit area is not for them.

    1. Dear Nina
      Thank you so much for your comment. I'm a great fan of your blog. Our perspectives are very different, but I enjoy engaging with such a considered and thoughtful critic. I have been following your posts on the 'museum of "and"', and I have been planning a post in response, but let me offer some provisional thoughts.

      First, I think you're right to emphasise institutional difference, which is something I've tended to downplay. My comments are directed mainly at the great universal museums, and I accept that they're not necessarily well suited to smaller or more niche museums.
      That said, I don't go to a museum in order to have a certain 'experience'. I go to see art. I think it would be a shame if you got to the Met and were told that today the contemplative experience is in the Rembrandt room, but Bruegel is set aside for children and the classical sculpture is today's shouting space.

      I would always err on the side of minimal regulation. I prefer quiet, but I would never seek to impose that on others. I'm not arguing for museums to enforce quiet times. The idea of managing expectations and setting up different times for different activities implies a high level of 'visitor management' and I'd prefer a more flexible environment. I think lots of people get annoyed by children running around and screaming because they're bored and disengaged; less so when they're focused on the art.

      Those are just some initial reactions. I'm still thinking through some of the interesting issues you're raised.

  2. Michael - I thought of you this morning when I encountered this paper boat made for the entertainment of children in the Raphael gallery at the V&A.

    They could have put it in front of The Miraculous Draught of Fishes and at least pretended there was some contextual relevance!

  3. That's a wonderful example of how not to do it! Thank you for the picture. I'm sure it's a great activity for kids, but such a flimsy connection with the art.

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  5. I worked as a docent at one of the Smithsonian museums for a few years. During that time, docents were instructed to "lay down ground rules" (about not getting too close to the art, so as to preserve it for many future generations) before starting a tour for school-aged children. We did, and never once did I find a child breaking the rules. So you can imagine my sense of surprise (and horror) when I saw a 30-something visitor rubbing the belly of a 14th century Buddha on display. Perhaps we need to remind visitors of all ages to keep a respectful distance from the art?

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