LISTEN to that uncontrolled children’s cackle in the galleries! See those sticky fingermarks on the glass cabinets! What’s that on the menu in the museum café? Warm milk for kids in plastic cups!
In a comment piece in The Scotsman last week, your columnist Tiffany Jenkins claimed museums were becoming “one big crèche”. The academic attacked the Kids in Museums Manifesto – compiled from thousands of museums visitors’ comments – for not teaching kids to “be quiet and look closely at something”. According to Jenkins, shut up and stand up should be a good museum’s motto.
There’s a fabulous circulatory quality about this argument that children should be (occasionally) seen but not heard. Neither teenagers nor toddlers, it would seem, need go to a Pissarro exhibition because it’s pointless. Impressionism is way above them. Yet when they do dare tread inside the “palace of knowledge” as Jenkins likes to call museums, and yelp with joy at what they see – they’re branded unwelcome because they’re too noisy.
This “culture isn’t for children” camp deems the only proper response to a Tintoretto is to take a few paces back, stroke your chin gently, and mumble (inaudibly please) “Uuummmm”. You can see why kids might get the impression going to a museum just is not meant for them.
At a recent Kids in Museums workshop, Scottish Opera showed their Baby O performance – opera for the under twos. Who would have thought La Bohème and bibs went together. But they do. I challenge anyone to witness the wide eyes, yelps (yes, they’re not hushed) and dribbles (and they’re a bit messy) of the tiny audience. And then ask yourself – which opera would you rather be at? One full of people who’ve paid an awful lot to feel very little? Or one where the audience is so entranced and enthralled they forget to eat their plastic pot of mashed banana?
If art is to be alive, it can’t be a dead thing on a wall or a stuffed thing in a cabinet.
I hope next time you walk into a museum you’ll be moved to say “Wow!” (even if other visitors can hear you) rather than “Shussh”. Because isn’t “Wow” is what we all want to feel?
• Dea Birkett is director of Kids in Museums