|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 café. 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.