Tiffany Jenkins: Children should be seen not heard

It's positive that museums have become more visitor-friendly. Picture: Robert Perry
It's positive that museums have become more visitor-friendly. Picture: Robert Perry
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Museums must grow up – they are palaces of knowledge, not one giant crèche for the nation’s toddlers, writes Tiffany Jenkins

WHEN you enter a museum, is the first thing you think as you walk through the door: if only they were more child-friendly? As you pass the art tables where the under-10s congregate, the school parties, the tired parents with their energetic off-spring, and are hit by a cacophony of noise, do you worry that far too little attention has been paid to thinking about the children? Or are you like me and wonder if it hasn’t all gone a bit too far and that museums are on the brink of becoming one big crèche?

Spend a Saturday or Sunday at Kelvingrove in Glasgow or the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh and you will be met by the sound of the little ones running about and shouting at each other. From Monday to Friday it’s the same kids, if under (a little) instruction, on one of many school trips.

One museum I visit not only has a children’s menu (which is perfectly reasonable, before you act all shocked) but also sells babyccinos – that’s coffee without the coffee, ie warmed frothy milk in a plastic cup.

I’ve no doubt that in the olden and not so golden days when children were seen and not heard that museums could, at times, be terribly dull for everyone, a bit rigid and too much like hard work. It’s positive that in the past few decades they have loosened up and become more visitor-friendly in general.

Fine. I like an ace café and the lattes on sale as much as the next girl. But there is a seemingly relentless drive to make them more like a nursery and less like a palace of knowledge.

The exhibits, the labels and the whole feel of a museum is now more aimed at the young rather than you and me. This does both adults and children a disservice. We visit museums to know more about past human civilisations and in order to appreciate what they have created, but so many are now so dumbed down for a youthful audience that we learn very little of substance – that’s if we can concentrate with all the clamour. As the holidays approach, as parents wonder how to spend those glorious non-school days stretching out in front of us, it will only get worse.

There is even a campaign encouraging them to be more child friendly – Kids in Museums – which has been organising “Take Over Days” – where across the country children are given meaningful roles in museum, galleries and historic homes. One day isn’t a problem; my concern is that it seems to be Take Over Day every day and they appear to wish it to be so.

Damien Dibben, the bestselling author and patron of Kids in Museums, said in a way that could almost be taken as a threat: “Museums must remember that one day is never enough. Takeover Day is only the first day of putting young people permanently at the heart of a museum.”

If you think I sound a bit curmudgeonly, have a closer look at the Kids in Museums manifesto and ask yourself if this is the right approach for museums, and – actually – if children will benefit in the long run? Numbers 1-3 on the manifesto are various tips about saying hello to visitors and being nice; I can’t argue with that. But Number 4 recommends that museums “begin at birth”. That “it’s never too early to visit a museum. They’re social, sensory, stimulating places – perfect for babies.”

I beg to differ. New mums and dads need to get out of the house and are frazzled and knackered, but museums are not ideal for babies. Honestly, infants don’t get that much out of the displays and the gurgles and screams, though of course delightful, disturb others.

No6 tells museums to “invite teenagers in and let them hang out”. The manifesto instructs managers to “ask them if they want to get involved and value their opinions. Museums can lead the way in letting people know the contributions teenagers make.” Letting teenagers “hang out” is just providing an alternative to a mate’s house, not opening a door to something that they have never seen before.

It accommodates everything to those who don’t really want to be in a museum, rather than showing them something challenging and worthwhile; wooing them properly instead of slavishly flattering them.

Besides, why should teenagers even like museums? In the past, there were always a self-selecting few in their teenage years who visited; the solitary studious types who are probably alienated by them now, but there were never that many. Don’t they have better things to do? I did. Museums are too desperate for their attention. It reeks of defensiveness. We don’t fret about the grannies who don’t go clubbing; it’s OK that different age groups are into different things.

No13 instructs: “Don’t say ssshhhush!” Well, if only someone did. No14 is: “Say ‘Please touch!’ as often as you can.” I admit some museums have excellent areas put aside where kids can touch objects, especially the Natural History Museum in Oxford where they can pet all the taxidermy they like, and you get all these creaky animals with bare patches on their heads and backsides as it is so popular.

But how about we encourage a different approach for the children, one where they learn to be quiet and to look closely at something? Where we teach them what it is to study, know more and the great benefits that this brings – an understanding of other cultures; their lives, beliefs, rituals and achievements.

We have a responsibility to younger generations that we are failing to honour. Rather than introducing them to places they might want to return to over a lifetime, that they may grow up to appreciate, that they won’t be associating museums with “kids” stuff’ when they are older, we are reneging on our duty to nurture a serious attitude towards scholarship. My manifesto for children in museums reads: ssshhhush, look, listen to the adults, and learn.