On Monday evening, I was invited to a dinner of women affiliated with the University where I work, and the people at my table started discussing the big museum in town. The latest exhibit is on dragons, and the woman beside me was saying how much her children had enjoyed it, and how much she wished that museums would offer more material that was suitable for pre-school or school-age children. She told me about a "Bob the Builder" exhibit that had been on a while back (I was shocked to my snobby core that such a thing even existed), and how much her children had enjoyed playing with blocks that represented water, etc. "Why can't they have more of that?" she asked.
Before I could reply (though my mind was whirring with righteous indignation that the historical artifacts in storage were being neglected in favour of a stop-motion animated character's syndicated series), the lady across from me jumped in with a complaint of her own: the museum had recently raised admission prices, alienating young families. She remembered (she was close to retirement age) that when her kids were young, she would take them to the museum, which was then free, to see their favourite object, and one other. What a wonderful idea!
I remember (this is the part where I stroke my long grey beard and nod sagely...) that whenever we used to travel as a family, museums were always on the list of where to go, no matter how old I was. And I was fascinated by them! In fact, although I enjoyed exhibits that were aimed at children, particularly in science museums, I loved things that were strange and wonderful. I nurtured a love for all things Ancient Egyptian, for example, for about 5 years, and learned an amazing (or appalling, depending on your point of view) amount about the culture. Isn't that what museums can bring to kids? Expanding their minds not just in ways that are familiar and safe, like using their favourite cartoon characters as guides to processes like recycling, but also in ways that open their minds to the fact that different cultures in the world, throughout different time periods had different norms of behaviour and different values.
When I worked as a security guard (my worst job ever) in a museum, I loved it when school groups would come in, and one girl or boy would choose me as their special friend and point out objects that excited them. I could never predict what their reaction would be. Museums are a place for learning that is totally different than classroom learning - they teach about ways of behaviour in crowded places; reverence for age and difference; art, culture, and society. I think they do all these things well, without the need for cartoon characters to make them palatable.
But what do you think?