Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Preparing art museums for children

Why is there is so much advice out there for adults about how to take children to museums? Articles are cropping up all over the place with titles like, Preparing Children for Art MuseumsWhen Can I Take My Kid to a Museum? and (my personal favorite) Taking Your Kid to the Museum Doesn’t Have to be MiserableThis trend is drawing attention to a very real issue that has nothing to do with whether adults are “equipped” to take their children to museums or if children are “ready” to be museum visitors. It's about museums creating learning experiences that work well for families.

For the most part, the suggestions in these guides are spot-on: start with your child’s interests, narrow your focus, take lots of breaks. But then some of the suggestions are a little baffling. Dr. Kimberlee L. Kiehl, director of the Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center (SEEC) makes a very thoughtful case for bringing children to museums, but at one point she recommends that since you can’t handle things in traditional collecting museums, you should bring toys to touch. Of course her recommendation is a practical one, but I hope the museums to which she refers (one has to wonder if she is implicating the Smithsonians here) are taking notes.

In another interview, Tricia Blasko, Curator of Education of the Racine Art Museum also has some excellent recommendations but then goes on to suggest that parents make their own scavenger hunt. Really? Scavenger hunts are the art museum version of the paper diner placemat that comes with crayons. It’s the most basic thing art museums have devised in the history of “quick! we forgot to make something for the kiddos”. Maybe they’re ubiquitous because they work, but if that's the case it seems simple enough to get the intern to make one up and leave some photocopies at the front desk, right?

People clearly want to bring their children to museums. We know museum visits do wonders for child development. The internet is abuzz with tips and tricks to hack your museum visit to make it more child-friendly. So here’s a crazy idea: why don’t we take the advice ourselves and make our museums easier for families to visit? I've compiled three examples of advice for visitors along with a few suggestions for how we can implement that advice so they don't have to. And here's a freebie: don't make families bring their own scavenger hunt- offer them one when they come in the door.

1. Look and Talk Together

"...encourage the children to hone their powers of observation by playing a game like I spy." Sharon Harding, How To Enjoy Art With Your Children
Most people don't feel comfortable having conversations about art, especially with children. But social interaction is so important in a museum. People learn and create memories by talking about what they're seeing. Additionally, visitors who are having engaging conversations are more likely to linger in the galleries.

To encourage dialogue between caregivers and children in the gallery, use brief, easy-to-read labels to give adults quick shots of background information and scripts to inspire their conversation. It's an incredibly effective technique in children's museums. Adults will read the questions right off the walls and it's an automatic conversation starter. Use temporary labels and observe visitors reading them in the galleries to see what questions are the juiciest.

An example of script-style interpretation in the exhibit, American Family at Children's Discovery Museum of San Jose

2. Review the Rules 

"Explaining to children in advance behavioral expectations (such as no touching) allows children to be prepared before their visit." Tricia Blasko, Preparing Children for Art Museums
Museum behavior rules are specific to museums. To set kids up to succeed (read: not get reprimanded in the galleries) we have to introduce them to our expectations and explain why we have these rules in place. Once children know what's expected of them, they'll feel comfortable, confident, and welcome in museums. That is, as long as our expectations are realistic. This is a great excuse to review the rules and toss out the ones that aren't there to protect the art and the visitors. It's worth reexamining policies that ban photos, cell phones, and talking.

A simple list of rules on the gallery map or website isn't enough- again, you're just putting the burden on the adult caregivers. Instead, use a direct approach that puts an emphasis on children having a positive visit. This could be a welcome speech from a visitor services representative, a complimentary intro tour for new visitors, an introductory gallery exhibit, or a video like this one from the Milwaukee Art Museum:

3. Limit Time 

“Don't plan on spending a full day in a museum or the entire family is likely to end up exhausted and grumpy.” Lisa Goodmurphy, 9 Tips for Taking Kids to an Art Museum
This is one of the best pieces of advice and it's the hardest to implement in real life. If a visitor spends $25 for each adult admission ticket, it's hard to justify leaving after only a few hours- which is probably all the kids can handle realistically. What if families could pay for a half day visit? Parking garages have reliable systems in place for charging people incrementally. Of course one pre-existing solution is membership, but that only works for local visitors and even if they want to be members, it's a big commitment to put the money down all at once. The St. Louis Art Museum and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco both offer gym-style memberships with recurring monthly payments.

Those are long term solutions. In the meantime, look around the museum and take note of all the opportunities visitors have to take a break and recharge. Cafeterias, picnic spots, gardens, and cozy nooks are essential museum amenities. Are there ways to make those spaces even more effective?

Child-sized museum fatigue. Photo by Babak Fakhamzadeh. 

In conclusion, we have work to do. But the good news is, visitors care about taking their children to museums. So much so that they want to help other visitors have positive museum experiences with their families. And museum educators are brimming with thoughtful solutions. People love museums and want to share that passion with their families. Just imagine how much more they’d love museums if we designed our exhibits with their families in mind.