Those of us who have kids, or who have been in charge of one for the day, say a niece or a nephew, have all grabbed the easy option of using a museum or gallery as a crèche. After all, most are free to enter and you can stay the whole day. Many provide a decent café, where you can choose from a “lunchbox menu” with mini cupcakes, sandwiches without the crusts, squash and even a babycino if your five year old is so inclined.
So desperate for uncritical attention, these institutions fall over themselves to welcome younger visitors, who, let’s face it, are easier to please than the traditional older, more discerning clientele – grown-ups – who tiresomely complain, about the facilities, the quality of the hang of an exhibition, or the simplistic labelling of the paintings; some of which, such as those in the Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow, are placed at the eye-line height of a young child.
Today, museums are not just child friendly; they are child centred, organised around every perceived need of the little ones. Science museums and natural history are especially bad, but art galleries want a piece of the childcare action too. All have a packed programme of activities devoted to under 5s; 5 to tens and the teenage crowd: treasure hunts, storytelling, touch zones (that’s touching an object or a dead animal), crafts, crayons and dressing up. And they encourage you, the adult in fawning attendance, to convince yourself that the visit is educational: the brats aren’t just playing – they are learning, as they mess about with paper mache in a gallery once devoted to Greek antiquities.
You may be asking, what’s the problem? The thing is, organising museums around what the managers think makes for a family friendly museum or gallery ruins them for everyone. The way cultural institutions are increasingly organised to cater for kids is changing them for the worse for adults and for kids.
For adults, museums and galleries are increasingly off-limits during the holidays and the weekends, and during term-time, because they’re overrun by children who are rarely asked to: “Shh”, or “Slow down”, or even, “Look closely and learn”. At National Museums Scotland, it’s unbearably noisy. At the Natural History Museum in Oxford, adults unaccompanied by children are such a rarity, if you see one you wonder why they are there. And at the National Gallery and the British Museum, both in London, large school parties career through the galleries and are placed in front of the “highlights” of the collection, making it difficult for anyone else to have a look or think. Adult spaces for study and contemplation have been transformed into playgrounds.
The child focused museum and gallery also does a disservice to children. Instead of introducing young people to the material and artistic achievements of past human civilisations, too many cultural institutions direct attention away from what is unique about them, often running activities only indirectly related to what is on show.
The Pitt Rivers Museum – which holds one of the strangest collections in the country, known for its shrunken heads – asks children to, “Find Mickey”. But these aren’t objects from the large and fascinating anthropological collection; they’re wooden mice hidden within it. The kids, I concede, enjoy the game, but the mice have little do with the museum. And if children aren’t old enough to be interested in the objects or the art on show you have to ask: why are they there?
When children are old enough to appreciate cultural riches, museums and art galleries should aim to introduce them to the kind of space that they will want return to over their life time. This means not only confidently showing them interesting, beautiful, and unique things, but also, crucially, instructing them in how to behave in such special places. This means telling the little ones to be quiet, showing them how to look closely, and to respect the fact that the curators know more than they do. The adults need to say, “Shh!”