The ‘Children in Museums’ debate

Recently, newspapers and media outlets reported on the story of a child climbing on a $10 million piece of art at the Tate Modern in London.

This is the picture and the tweet that alerted the wider world to what happened.

It makes me sad that the reflex thought was “horrible kid”.

Stephanie confronted the parents of the child, and  later spoke to the Standard about the incident: “I was shocked. I said to the parents I didn’t think their kids should be playing on a $10 million artwork. The woman turned around and told me I didn’t know anything about kids and she was sorry if I ever had any.”

“I don’t know who they are but I just know you don’t put your kid on a sculpture.It wasn’t just the kids, the parents were encouraging them … It isn’t about monetary value, it is a museum, not a playground.”

Sadly, I’ve seen more parents than you would think try to place their little darlings on a statue at the museum I work at, just for the photo. But that’s an issue with the parents, not the kids. Anyway, back to the case at hand…

The Great Tate Debate

Since the Tate Incident a debate has raged about the place of children in museums. To me, this debate is silly. “Should children be banned from museums?” Of course not. Museums are a place of learning, no matter how old you are. The vast, overwhelming majority of children are respectful when it comes to being in a museum. Again, working with children in museums I know this firsthand.

It’s such a shame that all it takes is one case like the one above for people to start banging the drum for banning kids from museums. The Telegraph have opened a poll asking people for their opinions on the matter. At the time of writing, the results stood thusly:

Should children be banned from museums?
Should children be banned from museums?

After hearing both sides of the case a third of people think that kids should be banned. This is worrying.

Ban them! Ban them all!

Do these people really think that kids “run their sticky fingers over the Shaker furniture or Chinese bronzes,” as suggested by The Telegraph’s Ivan Hewett? If you start arguing that children should be banned because they’re a destructive force, then what about banning artists? They smash pots; they arrogantly deface paintings; they even leave lipstick stains smeared upon art.

But let’s be honest, that line of argument ultimately ends in “Let’s keep everything safe in a nice dark, sterile room where noone will ever see anything.” Hardly beneficial to anyone.

(Just so we’re clear; I’m not advocating banning artists, I’m just giving an example of another demographic who could be viewed as ‘Spoiling the Museum Experience and should therefore be banned.’)

We must preserve the very long words!

Perhaps these people who don’t want children in these places of ‘high culture’ worry that things will have to be ‘dumbed down’ so that things are ‘child-friendly.’ The ‘dumbing down’ argument is a most patronising one for several reasons.

To begin with, you don’t have to ‘understand’ a piece of art in order to enjoy it on any level. I’m a seasoned museum and gallery-goer but I don’t necessarily ‘understand’ everything I see, but that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy it or think about what it could mean.

But what chance does anyone, regardless of age, have of ‘understanding’ anything if they aren’t exposed to it?

It’s the worst kind of person who looks a something, tilts their head, strokes their chin and says ‘hmmm.’ Occasionally tutting when someone else tries to look at the art too. Perhaps these people are fond of their big words, for everyone knows, knowing big words makes you sound clever. Perhaps they don’t realise that being able to articulate the meaning of these words is what *really* makes you clever.

What the Frick?

I would like to draw your attention to the Frick Collection in New York.  They ban children under 10 from coming in (you can read their admissions policy stating their reasons for this which I’ll be quoting from).

It’s quite something that the collection is displayed with “a minimum of  ropes, barriers, platforms, cases, and stanchions that typify museum installations throughout the world.” They realise that this is a unique situation but it comes with a risk “Unfortunately, many other museums have learned that irreparable harm can be done to an artwork in the briefest instant, intentionally or not, by a careless hand.” It’s interesting to note that initially they seem to recognise that damage can come from anyone regardless of their age.

It’s not until the 4th paragraph (of 6) that children are mentioned at all: “The admission of young children to The Frick Collection would necessitate erecting numerous and varied physical barriers to protect the works of art.”

Hang on. Suddenly barriers are needed? Because… hang on, why? No, really, what is the reason? They say that any ‘careless hand’ can cause damage – what makes kids less careful than grown ups? Interestingly it looks like they’ve been called out on Age discrimination (see the policy’s penultimate paragraph) but their position was upheld.

As you may have guessed, I’m a strong supporter of children visiting museums. They are for everyone, let’s keep them that way.


5 Comments Add yours

  1. traceygooch says:

    The whole debate is quite scary. I’ve just spent this week amazed by how half term can turn a usually quiet museum where I am doing a project into a lively, vibrant (albeit more chaotic, which is presumably what people are so scared of) place full of energy – its a shame they have to go back to school, although I’m sure the curator will appreciate a break. Museums without children would be terrible places.

  2. Thank you for this. I go very often to museums with my 3 year old son and I enjoy how I start to look at things differently because of something he says or does. Even days later we have conversations about something we looked at. I think many museums here in Britain are great with children and I think it would be a shame if this changes just because one couple does not know how to teach their children, when they should be careful and when it is ok to run around freely. I mean, that is what we parents are there for, to guide our children through the world until they can go on their own.

  3. Margrete Kristiansen says:

    I agree that children should be allowed in museums, barriers or no barriers — obviously in the Tate museum case it isn’t so much the activities of the child, but the lack of respect of the parent’s for basically somebody else’s property and teaching that respect for boundaries to their children.

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