Children in Museums

Hello, Attic readers! Amy has kindly let me have a go at writing some opinion pieces in this space, so I thought I'd start right away. I'm hoping to trigger a little bit of discussion about topics of museum curation, visitation, and exhibition. Today's topic: children in museums.
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?


Amy said…
Julia! Great to have you on the team. For anyone who doesn't know, Julia is a brand new distance-learning Leicester PhD (so new, I'm not sure she's even officially started yet!). Anyway...I'm not sure I feel particularly qualified to speak on this point, but would certainly agree that as a child I was fascinated by museums, and their exhibits - especially anything a bit gory! - without the intervention of so-called child-friendly exhibitions, etc. But, at the same time, I recognise I was a slightly strange child! ;) I guess there needs to be a balance, not just to 'speak' to children on an appropriate level, but also to attract non-traditional museum visitors and families that might otherwise think a museum is not for them. I'd be interested to know what the Bob the Builder exhibition was attempting to educate children about.
J said…
Thanks for the intro, Amy!

I recognize that probably all of us in the program were fascinated by museums at an early age - otherwise, we probably wouldn't be pursuing that passion and interest now. But surely, we can't have been the only ones thrilled by the darkened rooms full of mysterious shadowy things from long ago?

Bob the Builder blurb:
Amy said…
I see - 'green' themes. And it appears to have been designed (maybe unsolicited?) by the production company. Cynical marketing venture, perhaps?!
I note there was something similar at the Science Museum last year:
Anna said…
Hi Julia - Really interesting post! It's something I've also thought about. I guess it's all about striking a balance between cartoons and collections, but that's easier said than done probably!
Sarah said…
Hi all, just stumbled on this site. I'm in museum studies in the States, and work at the museum that created Bob the Builder. So, a little biased. However, I am also the person who brings in these special exhibits for our museum, so I do understand the concern of balancing artifact display and hands-on interactivity.

The exhibit was created with a target audience of children ages 2-5. For this group, we embrace a the idea of play as a primary vehicle for learning. In the BtB exhibit, children take part in pretend play activities, doing basic problem solving and group interaction. We often find that we have to explain to adults that there is learning happening. In fact, the learning is amazing, but it is not clearly evident to most adults, who see learning as the transmission of factual or philosophical information.

The exhibit was not designed by the production company, although, Amy, you are right to question this, as I have seen too many exhibits where this is the case. The exhibit at the Science Museum is such an example. The BtB exhibit was created by The Children's Museum with a license purchased from the producers.

There is a fine line that we walk with special/temporary exhibits. I would never suggest that a museum use a licensed character exhibit as a permanent space to anchor a museum. Special exhibits are just that, special. They are meant to drive attendance, but also to provide a fresh idea for the museum. They can be used to allow visitors the chance to see topics that may not be supported by the museum's collection. And, please remember that some museums, especially children's museums in the US, do not maintain a strong collection. These museums are not traditional keepers of objects, but rather function as a learning space. Touring exhibits can enhance these, both with and without artifacts.

My current studies have led me to Gurian's idea of the "post-museum," so I cannot help but be intrigued by your romantic memories of dark rooms with amazing objects. I too remember days wandering through artifact halls. But, while that approach works for some people, for others it merely reinforces a fear that museums are "elitist" or "too intellectual" for the every day visitor.

The ideal would be both - amazing artifacts, presented with appropriate context and a bit of mystery, as well as spaces where families can learn how to learn together, through play and activity.

Family audiences, at least here in the US, are the most active population of museum-goers. Many science centers and history museums are noticing this change in their demographic and are taking steps to tailor experiences for these children.

I hope that I have not offended or come off as too defensive. I really do understand the concern about the "Disneyfication" of museums. I worry about my own role in it. However, I also feel that it is important to evolve with our audiences. Use a cartoon character if needed, but once they are hooked - let them learn! And, once they are hooked, lead them deeper into the museum so they can see the dinosaurs, the mummy, and the priceless artifacts.

Hope you don't mind my following the blog! I've always been so impressed with the program at Leicester.
J said…
Sarah, thanks for your thoughtful reply! It's interesting to hear about the difference in approach between your museum and the Science Museum version. I hope we get to hear more about your work and your perspectives in developing this and other exhibitions.

I'm particularly intrigued by your saying that the target age was 2-5. I think this actually quite clever, but not for the reason that you give. I don't think a 2 year old is necessarily going to say, "Mommy let's go back to the museum so I can look at different things." But Mommy herself, knowing about museums, and seeing how much her toddler is enjoying his or herself, might now consider the museum as a safe and useful play and learning environment for her child. It's simple but brilliant!
Amy said…
Hi Sarah - thanks for your input. It's great to get a perspective from 'the other side.' And I'm sorry if I came off a bit flippant in earlier comments; you have to take a lot of what I say with a liberal pinch of salt!

That said, I personally have no problem with this sort of venture, and I think it's important to remember, as you make clear, that museums in America - and around the world - differ in their collections, mission and way they meet their audiences' needs.

Like Julia, something that hadn't occurred to me before I read your comment was how unusual the Bob the Builder exhibition is, being targeted at pre-school age children (and/or their parents). Certainly in Britain (and I really can't speak with much authority here as it's not my area) focus their educational programmes on particular key stages in school pupils' development. So, getting toddlers hooked on museums is a genius idea!

Going back to what Julia said earlier, I'm not sure if I was - as a child - particularly attracted by museum objects, or museums themselves. It was more the idea of the museum, as a receptacle of knowledge and history, that got me. I was, and still am occasionally, scared stiff in many museums - especially those making use of wax models and anything with moving parts. Eek! So, I feel naturally drawn to 'clean' gallery spaces, full of light and colour. But, at the same time, and I think this is another important point to think about, is whether the 'Primark approach'* as Ceri so cogently put it when I discussed it with her the other day, is the right one. To what extent do we assume that's what people want - especially those non-traditional visitors that museums (and funding agencies) are so keen to attract. As a case in point, yesterday the BBC were stopping 'youths' (I hate that word!) on the street to ask for their views on a proposed government initiative to distribute free theatre tickets to young people. The reporter targeted two teenagers: one was a British Asian boy in hip-hop gear, and the other was a blonde, barbie-pink lipsticked girl, bedecked with hair extensions. Both admitted that they felt the theatre wasn't for them, but a free ticket would encourage them to give it a go. An incredulous reporter went on to ask both of them 'even a Shakespearean play?' (presumably he assumed both would recoil in horror at the prospect). 'Yeah, Shakespeare's cool man' was the response. I hope what this anecdote illustrates is that we make a lot of assumptions about non-visitors; who they are, what they're interested in, what they want, what they need. But, how often do we stop to ask *them*?

* Primark is a rather bold and brash (but brilliant - ethical concerns notwithstanding), 'pile 'em high, sell 'em cheap' fashion retailer in Britain.
J said…
Hahaha, "youths". Always reminds me of "My Cousin Vinny."

Seriously, though - I think I was a remarkably obedient child, and my parents seemed to think museums were important, so I started to think so, too. Good thing they were actually interesting for someone like me! But I think it was more of a cultural value for my parents. I remember my mom falling asleep on a bench in the V&A while I happily skipped through the galleries. Same with more rarified aspects of culture - a few winters ago, on a visit home, after hearing an advert on the radio for the annual performance of "The Nutcracker," I started to nostalgically complain to my mother that we hadn't been to the ballet in years; to which my mother replied, "I did my bit when you were little - if you're so interested now, go yourself."

And speaking of wax models, I'm going to see "Body Worlds" on the weekend - will tell you about it when I get back.
gwencon said…
Museums are exactly one of the place children,at a young age should come and visit. They can learn a lot from there while having fun.

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