A Look At Life: Museums

28th February 2014

Is culture wasted on the young?

Kathy Walton

Unruly children and exasperated parents; overpriced food and a shop full of tacky goods. So much for our half-term visit to the Museum of London, a place I adore, but which my children (aged 13 and 10) managed to spoil.

Mind you, it’s not the first time I’ve had a museum trip ruined. On another occasion I unwisely invited my cousin’s brood to join us at the Geffrye Museum in East London. Talk about Philistines. Instead of enjoying a fascinating insight into the way previous generations lived, cooked and entertained themselves, the kids just charged through the exquisitely reconstructed rooms, headed straight for the café, before nagging to go to the shop to buy useless trinkets.

Little wonder then that after my most recent trip I concluded that instead of providing an uplifting experience, a museum can actually damage children’s health. One of my daughters somehow managed to tune her museum headset into Capital Radio for her entire tour of a recent Edvard Munch exhibition.

So, the news that during the half-term holiday, two young girls clambered over a £10m piece of sculpture at the Tate Modern didn’t surprise me. Admittedly, the exhibit in question did look like a box ladder, but that’s not the point. The point is that either the children were too young to appreciate the Tate Modern, (which isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, of course, but that’s what makes museums so interesting) or that the exhibits weren’t properly explained to them.

It’s this last bit that concerns me. Too often, in their bid to ‘reach’ children, museums dilute what they offer and patronise children, something which kids sense, albeit subconsciously.

When museums emulate theme parks with ‘kidz menus’ and whizzy inter-active features that don’t always teach anything; when they’re cynical enough to sell kiddie merchandise and junk food, children inevitably see museums as merely a youthful diversion, rather than temples of knowledge.

They start to think of museums and galleries as intrinsically infantile, picking up on the fact that dumbing down has turned them into an endurance test for parents, and conclude that they don’t appeal to adults. As a result, they see them as something to grow out of.

This really can’t be right. Children should relish their visits, not just on rainy days with their parents, but on trips with their school or youth club, guided by a curator whose love of his or her subject sets them on fire.

I realised that this was possible when I once accompanied a class of Spanish 10-year-olds around the Joan Miró museum in Barcelona. The tour lasted 40 minutes (the optimum time for most children) and kept to one theme: why Picasso was remarkable. The children were shown just a few of his works and given simple, but not condescending, explanations of where, when and why he produced them. Later, at Barcelona’s older Picasso Museum, the children saw the artist’s surprisingly conventional early work. Suddenly, they ‘got it’ – it was precisely because he was trained in the classical rules of painting, that he could break those rules so spectacularly.

What a light-bulb moment. Learning about Picasso’s artistic development helped the children understand why Franco feared him and why some of his work was banned in Spain for so long.

While I wouldn’t recommend letting very young children see Guernica, Picasso’s interpretation of the town’s bombing during the Spanish civil war, I don’t think it matters if ten year olds feel mildly unsettled by it. On the contrary, it will teach them about the subversive power of art.

Similarly, I once eavesdropped on a school group tour of a museum in Toronto. Instead of just wandering past stuffed animals as if they were items in a taxidermist’s window (which sadly was our experience of London’s Natural History Museum), the children were told what these animals meant to the survival of Canadian Indians, how they were used for their skins and meat, for trade and how they were depicted in art. When the children moved on into a contemporary room, they were visibly and audibly excited to see echoes of native art in modern exhibits.

So please, museums, go easy on ‘accessibility’. Instead, be honest with young visitors about what museums are for, so that they can keep their sense of wonder into adulthood. Your rooms are full of fabulous treasures and, in this country at least, are generally free for all to enjoy, dislike and marvel at.

By all means show children naked Roman statues, give them grisly details of the ancient Egyptian embalming process, explain how medieval people went to the loo, and let them snigger at, or recoil from, the eccentricities of Damien Hirst…

…but above all, send them away with a hunger for more, not just a doughnut and a fridge magnet.

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