Are children bad for museums?

Ok, so this is an intentionally provocative title, especially from someone studying children's experiences in museums, who is also a volunteer with Kids in Museums!

This morning, I was sent a link from one of my KiM colleagues, for a blog post by Tony Trehy about the newly redeveloped People's History Museum in Manchester. The post, which criticizes the PHM for becoming a dumbed-down 'children's museum', got me thinking. Us attic-dwellers have recently been discussing what I like to think of (biologist that I am) as museodiversity - the variety of different museums that exist for different audiences. My own feeling is that I like the fact that different museums are pitched differently, have different interpretation styles, and aim themselves at different audiences. I think that's part of what makes us great. I also think that it is incredibly important that children are able to experience, and enjoy, museums from an early age, so that they continue to enjoy and visit them for the rest of their lives.

But this raises the question of whether, as Tony Trehy suggests, by designing their galleries with children in mind, museums end up excluding adults. I haven't been to the People's History Museum, either in it's old or new form, so I can't comment about this particular museum. But my feeling in general is that this doesn't need to be the case - there is often enough going on in a museum to allow for it to appeal to a broad audience. Many of the things that make a museum family friendly also make it more visitor friendly too - seats, toilets, cafe, friendly staff, and interpretations suitable for non-experts. I hope that additional activities and interpretations designed for children don't offend more 'serious' visitors - this would be a sad state of affairs indeed.

However, it is also important to realise that making museums child-friendly really shouldn't have to involve dumbing them down. Listed within the Kids in Museums Manifesto is this point:

"Don’t assume what kids want. They can appreciate fine art as well as finger painting. Involve kids, not just adults, in deciding what you offer."

Without getting too corny, children are people too - with a huge range of interests and attention spans. I think it would be terribly sad if museums attempted to dumb themselves down for the sake of children, as this actually wouldn't benefit anyone - and this certainly isn't what the Kids in Museums Campaign is trying to achieve. At the same time, I think each museum needs to look carefully at who it wants its audience to include, and make sure they know how to be as physically and intellectually accessible to these audiences as they can, whilst also providing the stimulating experience that visitors really want.

A while ago I read an interesting idea in Hein's Learning in the Museum that when museums attempt to become accessible to a particular group of people, they often become accessible to lots of other people too. It could be that by thinking about children, museums accidentally make themselves more accessible to all sorts of other folks as well (not to mention allowing PhD students to dress up as Vikings). There are a large number of adults who aren't specialists in the particular subject area of the museum who would benefit from interpretation which makes fewer assumptions about their prior knowledge, and is designed to grab their attention. It is as plausible that a particular adult would enjoy a high-energy interactive museum as it is that a particular child would enjoy looking at ancient Chinese artefacts.

I actually think it is fine for some museums to focus only on specialist adult audiences. But I also think that if museum professionals equate access for children with dumbing down, they are doing themselves no favours at all, and are also giving little credit to their younger audiences. So I don't think that children are bad for museums, but I do think that the image that some people have of children is bad for museums. And the best way round this is to continue to work closely with all our audiences, and take their views seriously whether they be a young child or a university professor.


Jenny said…
I've often thought that children are given less credit than they deserve. They're intelligent beings (more intelligent, and more open than adults a lot of the time) and should be treated as such. Yes, there should be HUGE variety in museums, and that doesn't not have to mean that people are always or ever excluded.

Nicely said.
Jenny said…
You, I mean. Not me! You said it nicely, I blethered...

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