A Lesson from History
The recent debate over whether children should be banned from museums has left me reeling; it feels as though we've all taken an enormous step back in time; back, in fact to 1899 when Anna Billings Gallup and Professor William H Goodyear established the world's first museum for children in Brooklyn, New York precisely in order to provide children with the benefits of a museum experience outside the stern gaze of disapproving adults.
Back then, museum signs reading "Children under 12 not allowed" were the norm, and it required these two visionaries to see not only the injustice of such a stance to the youngsters of their time, but also the pitfalls to the future of society should we not establish and encourage a love of arts, culture and creativity amongst the next generation. This radical approach by Billings Gallup and Goodyear marked the start of a movement which went on to experience unprecedented growth on an international scale, eventually becoming the successful and highly regarded children's museum movement of today.
In more recent times, this country has seen a burgeoning of child and family friendly exhibitions and facilities among more traditional museums, driven in equal parts by changing public expectations about the role of museums in our lives, and the necessity of attracting new audiences in an age of government cutbacks, a drop in charitable giving and declining visitor numbers.
Whatever the reasons, it can only be a good thing that museums have become more accessible to children, families and other diverse audiences, and I find it difficult to imagine a world where the first sign to come into view at the entrance of one of our renowned galleries or museums reads "NO CHILDREN ALLOWED". Or at least I did until recently.
Art, Sculpture or Climbing Frame?
The current furore over banning the under-12s kicked off following a piece in the London Evening Standard showing children at the Tate Modern climbing on a Donald Judd sculpture worth several million pounds. This article included a quote from the outraged New York gallery owner who witnessed "the transgression", becoming even more incensed when the parents did not respond to her admonishment. As you would expect in this day and age, the whole episode was immediately tweeted to the world.
The response has been substantial: journalists, parents, professionals from museums, galleries, and education, grumpy adults, kid-loving adults and even sitting-on-the-fence adults have all shared their points of view, coming down on one side or the other. While it's encouraging to see that more than 60% of those responding to the Telegraph poll -- which pitted Telegraph critic Ivan Hewett on the "oust the children" side against the formidable Kids in Museums advocate Dea Birkett -- are against banning children from museums, it is still disturbing to see so many supporting Hewett's position.
As I see it, there is a whole host of excellent reasons ranging from the altruistic through the obligatory to the self-serving for encouraging children to visit museums. Chief among these are:
- heightened awareness of children's rights and their entitlement to access and participate in cultural life and the arts*
- the evidence that early exposure to arts and culture improves health and well-being and supports a lifelong love of learning and discovery
- public funding, and in some cases, sponsorships and philanthropic contributions, require access for all audiences
- the advantages to the museum or gallery, the individual and society as a whole of engaging a broad, diverse and intergenerational audience
On the other hand, there are few justifiable reasons I can think of for banning children. If a child sees a climbing frame where an adult sees a priceless piece of art it's a matter of perspective - and if that poses a problem, the onus is on the professionals to facilitate the child's interpretation and experience of the sculpture.
As museum leaders, we have an obligation to ensure that all of our visitors are able to gain an understanding of history, art, culture and the natural world through their unique engagement with our collections and exhibitions. To achieve this, we need to consider the varied needs of diverse audiences and find ways of addressing differences in age, background, ability and disability, culture and circumstances. There is no denying that this is a considerable challenge, and a dynamic one, as each passing year brings new developments and higher audience and funder expectations. But surely our response cannot be to close the door on children, or any distinct audience, because we find the challenge too great.
Museums can be for everyone
At Eureka! The National Children's Museum we are, of course, accustomed to dealing with the inquisitive nature and exuberant behaviour of hundreds of thousands of children each year. And, unlike the Tate Modern, our exhibits are not priceless works of art; indeed many are meant to be climbed on, crawled through and spun around! But we also have exhibits that are meant for quieter contemplation, for observation and for the exploration of individual artistic and creative potential.
As children and families wend their way through our museum, this range of experiences naturally falls into place in our visitors' psyches and an (almost) perfect balance is struck which satisfies adult, child and museum staff alike. Of course, because Eureka! is for all children, we cater for families from many different backgrounds and beliefs which means that values, attitudes and behaviour vary considerably. This requires an adjustment in expectations on the part of all parties, and a commitment to making it work in the greater interest of diversity and inclusion.
Children's Museums will always be special places where children begin to explore the wonders of the world and their place within it in a safe, warm and welcoming environment created especially for them. But as we whet the appetite of the under 12s to branch out into the wider world of arts, history and culture, let's not constrain their curiosity and creative potential by preventing them from visiting the outstanding museums this country is home to. Rather, let's put a bit more effort into understanding how we can better support children's visits, accommodate their needs and engage the adults who visit with or alongside them in a shared and meaningful experience.