Should children be banned from museums?

February 24, 2014

Kids in Museums

Recently, a picture made the rounds on Twitter, of a child climbing on a work of art worth over $10m at the Tate Modern in London. This is the picture and tweet in question:

The media quickly picked up the story. Stephanie Theodore, who originally posted the picture, told the London Evening Standard she had confronted the adults (it has since been stated they were the children’s aunt and uncle):

“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.”

Needless to say, art lovers around the world were up in arms about the incident. But I feel it is a little unfair to label the children as horrible in all this, if the adults weren’t setting a better example. And before anyone turns around and, like the woman in the Tate, tells me otherwise, I do know something about kids. I have one myself. And I would never encourage him to climb on a priceless artwork. Or on any other artworks, for that matter. What really saddens me, is that for every parent who thinks it is okay to pose their children on a statue or sculpture to take their photograph, there is a parent who has taught their children how to act in museums (I hesitate to use to word ‘behave’), and it’s the former parents who give the rest of us a bad name.

In the wake of the incident, the Telegraph published an opinion piece and poll last week asking the question “Should children be banned from museums?” To be honest, I find it ridiculous to even be having this debate. But even more so, I find it worrying that a third of respondents actually voted yes. Blanket banning an entire group is not the answer. And children aren’t the only ones who can be disruptive, so where will we stop? Some museums, such as The Frick Collection in New York, in fact don’t admit anyone under the age of ten. As stated in their ‘Policy on the Admission of Children’,  this is because they display their works of art “with a minimum of ropes, barriers, platforms, cases and stanchions”. Apparently, “the admission of young children to The Frick Collection would necessitate erecting numerous and varied physical barriers to protect the work of art” which would fundamentally change the experience of viewing the collection. They therefore believe that “this regulation is not only sensible, but is the only responsible stance” they can take. What?? I don’t know who they are comparing themselves to, but I have been to plenty of art museums which don’t have any of the above but still admit children. And I have also seen plenty of adults, with or without barriers, getting too close to artworks, touching them, or evening leaning against them while posing to have their photographs taken. Unlike small children, they should know better.

The short answer to the question “Should children be banned from museums?” is of course “No!” Telegraph critic Ian Hewett argues that high culture is inherently difficult and beyond the reach of children, to pretend otherwise is just a form of lying, and making art accessible to children at a young age will only result in them treating it with contempt when they reach adulthood. I beg to differ and agree with Dea Birkett, director of Kids in Museums, who counter argues that “it isn’t contempt that early exposure to great art breeds, but passion”. And even if children don’t necessarily ‘understand’ art at a young age, that doesn’t mean they can’t enjoy it – I myself don’t understand a lot of art, maybe you should ban me too?!

SMK Gallery Picture Watching

Going back to the original comment about horrible kids, the theme emerging from the debate following the Telegraph poll, seemed to be that for many parenting was the perceived issue, and not the kids themselves (the parents of the nine-year-old in the Tate incident say their daughter was “just being anti-establishment“) . As I already mentioned, it’s the parents who think it’s okay to treat museums like a theme park or assault course for their kids that give the rest of us parents a bad name. I can attest that it’s possible to teach a child not to be a museum hooligan without killing all their enjoyment.

For example, we’ve taught our three year old to recognise “please don’t touch” signs. He treats spotting the signs like a kind of game, rather than a kill joy. And if an adult happens to ignore the signs, he will be the first to tell them off! Note to museums: it really helps when these include pictograms. Many a time #MuseumBaby, who can’t yet read, has spotted a “no hands” sign and taken a step back, before I even needed to jump in. And if he’s unsure, he will usually look to us and ask “Touching?”. And guess what? He still enjoys his visits.

We also set clear boundaries. Whoops of joy are encouraged, crazy running around not so much. He generally sees visiting museums as a treat, so often the suggestion of cutting that treat short will do the trick. And if he’s acting up because he’s bored, we’ll try to engage him as best we can. There are plenty of ways to do this, even in museums that don’t provide any child focused activities – for example a simple game of “I spy”. But I’m not naive enough to think my toddler is some kind of saint, so sometimes it is just time to call it a day and head home. Because I don’t want to be that parent who everyone else hates, and I don’t want my kid to be the one who gets the blame.

When I posted a link to the Telegraph article on the Museum Diary Facebook page, one of my friends commented “Why isn’t the headline: Should parents let their child clamber on a $10 million sculpture??” Indeed.

3 Responses to “Should children be banned from museums?”

  1. Helen Spencer Says:

    Here here! My first thought when I heard the story was exactly your last comment.
    Maybe I should let my kids be anti establishment and go round their house, jump on their sofas, write on their walls and pull he plants up in their garden…..

    Maybe because I work in museums, I am much more aware of the irreversible damage that can be caused, and find it strange when kids are let to run riot. I remember kids running inside the feast bowl and jumping up and down on the skidoo at the opening of the National Museum of Scotland. This sort of behaviour then gives all kids and parents a bad name.

    I think most museums and museum staff couldn’t be more welcoming to kids and families, as they are a core audience. However, other visitors are not so friendly. Some museums visitors think that kids should be banished to the science centres or education rooms at the back of museums…

    When at the National Gallery in Edinburgh with my three year old, I got a few people tutting at us. First we were talking too loud – about the pictures! Then she was trying to draw a picture and had her crayons out on the floor and one lady said she shouldn’t be allowed to do that. The place was not crowded and if I thought she was causing an obstruction I would have moved her. There were no tantrums, running around or touching but I still felt unwelcome due to other visitors. So it is not surprising that a third of the poll respondents said kids should be banned! It is also a shame that an article in a national newspaper inspired by the poor behaviour of a single family can then set back the great work that museums and groups like Kids in Museums are doing.

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