Thursday, April 10, 2014

Museums and children: built to fail?

Does the thought of children in a museum make your heart swell? or does it make your heart stop? If the museum isn’t set up for young visitors, you’re probably on the cardiac arrest side of the equation. And it’s understandable.

The fact of the matter is, kids use museums differently than grown-ups. They’re more active and they talk more. This is how they learn and relate to the world. If museums truly want real live ACTUAL children to visit then they need to accept that children have different needs than grownups and design for those needs. If they don’t, museums are upholding unfair expectations. Children seem disruptive in galleries because galleries are not designed for their learning style. In effect, museums have set them up for failure.

One of the most fundamental problems here is the narrow definition of an appropriate experience for children to have in a museum setting. Columnist Judith Dobrzynski is becoming well-known for expressing her biases against museum experiences that look too much like fun and her thoughts on this issue is no exception. A self-described proponent of children in museums, she notes that the children she sees in museums are often “just horsing around or talking” and holds in contrast examples from the Denver Art Museum where they are actively engaging children with backpacks and programs that relate directly to the artwork on exhibit. Young visitors learn history and make art inspired by what they see on the walls. Judith deems this experience an appropriate one because she sees a clear correlation between the programming and the collection.

But Dobrzynski's underlying assumption is that every interaction a child has in a museum must be a content-driven one. When she writes dismissively about what she sees as “just play” she’s dismissing the fact that children learn by playing. In this regard, traditional museums need to take a page from the children’s museum handbook. Children’s museums (and science museums) have mission statements about sparking interest and inspiring love of learning, not delivering facts or even explaining concepts. They value attitudes and relationships over transference of knowledge.

Designing for children (and other kinesthetic learners) in museums is often mistaken for dumbing-down the museum. This speaks more to our society’s hierarchy of learning styles than anything else, but that’s another blog post. It’s this misapprehension that stokes the fears of folks like Ian Hewett who writes that such a philosophy dictates that “high culture must be brought down to the kids’ level”. He believes that art is far too complex for a child to appreciate. Incited by the bad behavior of the notorious grownups at the Tate Museum who let their kids climb all over a Donald Judd sculpture, he suggests that the pendulum is swinging in such a child-centric direction that eventually all hell will break loose and ultimately concludes that we simply cannot accommodate children in museums at all and they should be banned from museums altogether.

Of course there are plenty of museum professionals who disagree with Hewett. Educator Sarah Erdman encourages parents to visit museums with their babies. Not only does a museum visit serve the interests of a parent who wants a break from the isolated world of Cheerios and laundry (so much laundry), it can also delight infants with some of their favorite things: bright colors, photos of human faces, and the voice of their parent as they excitedly narrate their experience.

I wish Ian had been with me at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston last weekend (really, not really) to see an infant in his mother’s arms go gaga for their Quilts and Color exhibit. The baby may not have comprehended the history of the quilts or the color theory that his parents were interested in, but he was enjoying art with his family in a developmentally appropriate way. I felt bad that his mom felt like she had to shush his squeals of delight in the quiet gallery.

“We should be thrilled when even young children respond so enthusiastically ... Isn’t this exactly what we want?” 
Dea Birkett, Director of Kids in Museums, The Telegraph

Setting realistic expectations for children in museums comes down to what we in the children’s museum field call “ages and stages”. A three-year-old has very different needs and capabilities than a seven-year-old or a thirteen-year-old so exhibit developers match their expectations for children to their development and design experiences that meet their widely varying needs simultaneously. And children's museums always try to make sure the experience is just as engaging for grownups because let’s face it, the kids didn’t drive themselves to the museum. Creating multi-layered experiences is challenging, but it’s not impossible.

Sesame Street is a classic example of a successful multi-layered experience. Do the kids know who Placido Domingo is? Nope. Do they still get a kick out of Placido Flamingo? Absolutely.

As educator Cate Bayles succinctly states, “children breathe life into museums”. And deep down, most of us really do want children in our museums- even if it’s just to entice their parents. But making room for children in museums has its implications. What does it mean to truly invite children to the museum?