Children in the Palace

by Alana Cole-Faber

Perseus by Antonio Canova, picture by Hans Weingartz

Perseus by Antonio Canova, picture by Hans Weingartz

A few weeks ago, I took my four-year-old twins to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to see the museum’s beautiful Neapolitan crèche. Of course, once we arrived we were easily distracted by mummies and temples and sculpture and barely made time for the crèche itself. While strolling through one of the European sculpture halls, my children became enthralled by Antonio Canova’s Perseus with the Head of Medusa. We had read the story of Perseus several times in the past, and this depiction of the hero was immediately recognizable to them. My daughter was pleased to see that Perseus was wearing a helmet, but my son was rather upset that he seemed to have forgotten a crucial gift from Athena: a reflective shield. While the twins were debating the accuracy of the sculpture, two men walked by. One said to the other, “Oh, hey, it’s a sculpture of that guy from that myth.” My daughter overheard and softly replied, “Perseus,” but the men did not hear her. The second man said, “Yeah, it’s that guy who killed Medusa. What was his name?” The men stood silently scratching their heads for a few moments. “Perseus,” my daughter said a little louder, but again she was ignored. “Perseus!” exclaimed the first man after a long pause, at which point my daughter turned to me and said, “I told him it was Perseus, but he didn’t listen to me.”

“He didn’t listen to me.” I could hear my daughter’s words in my head as I read the recent article about children in museums by Tiffany Jenkins entitled, “Children Should Be Seen and Not Heard.” The author asserts that museums have become too child-friendly in recent years and claims this is essentially a waste of funds, since she believes children are incapable of truly benefitting from the collections that museums offer. The article so severely critiques the inclusion of children in museums that it almost reads as satire. Almost.

Children discovering the secret of calculating machines in the TECHNOSEUM in Mannheim/Germany.

Children discovering the secret of calculating machines in the TECHNOSEUM in Mannheim/Germany.

Yes, children are often noisy in museums. Yes, sometimes they run when they should walk. Yes, sometimes they touch when they should not. However, children are brought to museums for their education, and this education includes more than simply who made what and when. Bringing children to museums teaches them that these institutions have value, that what is inside them has value, and that the people who work there have value. With the help of a committed docent, the children might even learn how to behave themselves in the galleries, but even if they do not, the seeds are nonetheless planted for future growth. Studies made by the National Endowment for the Arts indicate there are numerous benefits to involving children in the arts and that those benefits are especially significant for children from low-income families.

Ms. Jenkins’s assertion that museums have become too child-friendly is impossible to support. I have worked with and visited many museums in many different countries over the years. Not once have I ever believed that any museum was too child-centered. I recently visited the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum, which in the United States is a sort of museum mecca for little ones. Airplanes and rocket ships hang from the ceiling, and there are interactives and videos throughout the galleries. There are children everywhere, and plenty of things for them to touch and climb upon. If any museum might be accused of being overly geared towards children, this one might be it. Yet I noticed at each interactive, there were at least as many adults participating as children. Grandfathers pointed out famous aircraft to their small companions, and children asked repeatedly of their parents, “What does this say? What is that?” It was loud, sure, but there was learning taking place in every nook and cranny of those galleries by visitors of all ages. I have no doubt at least some of those children will be returning as adults, sharing their experience with their own children and grandchildren.

Hand papermaking at the TECHNOSEUM in Mannheim/Germany

Hand papermaking at the TECHNOSEUM in Mannheim/Germany

If our museums are not for children, then whom are they for? Are we not in this business to preserve art, culture, and history for future generations? For those of us who work behind-the-scenes with collections, it is easy to think of the work of enticing our youngest citizens into museums as something apart from us. At some point in our careers, most of us have said, “Oh, I’m not really a curator and/or educator.” But we who preserve the stuff are part of that educational mission, and it is in our best interest that it succeed. If we are not teaching our youngsters that what we do matters, that all of this old stuff we care for has value, then we are surely all out of a job when the next generation comes of age, and Ms. Jenkins will be without her “palace of knowledge” altogether. Next time we hear a noisy bunch of school children wandering through a museum gallery, perhaps we should be thankful someone cares enough to bring them. And then we can make sure they don’t touch anything they are not supposed to.

If you were waiting for the outcome of the Registrar’s Trilemma, wait one more week, we will reveal it on January 17.

This post is also available in: Spanish, German

5 comments

  1. Alison Buchanan says:

    I have to agree that this was a great rebuttal to the argument that museum’s have become too child friendly. Like Anne Lane I do not have children, however some of my earliest and fondest memories are from days out to the Melbourne Museum with my grandparents. My brother and I were always encouraged to be inquisitive; we asked questions, we attended school holiday programs and as such both remain committed to going to the museum with our younger family members. I actively believe that we need to bring our collections to the children, to get them actively involved with our history – whether that is through open days, discovery centres or a more multimedia/interactive approach. One of the many aspects of my job is the recommendation to preserve or conserve objects. This is not for me, but for the future generations that should be able to connect with our past. As cliche as it sounds, the children ARE the future. Certainly the future for museums.

  2. Alana, I finally got around to reading your wise comments. My mother took me on the train to the Art Institute of Chicago on Saturdays when I was a kid. (The trains had wicker seats that flipped back and forth according to the direction of travel – yep, eons ago). Even before I worked in museums I would take my kids. When my daughter was about 12 she was a volunteer at the Madison Children’s Museum. Later when she moved back to Madison to get her undergrad degree – she did another stint there again. While her field is rather far removed from museum work – she hasn’t lost the appreciation. When she comes to NY to visit – we make our forays into the city’s museums. What goes around comes around. I’ll be looking with fresh eyes at families learning together from now on – thanks to you.

  3. Trey Sherwood says:

    [Marked as spam by Antispam Bee | Spam reason: Server IP]
    Great article. A good, thoughtful read to inspire all of us to embrace learners of all ages. Accessibility and transparency, are key in this industry. We must engage our constitutes and community; engaging them and meeting their needs or we, as cultural institutions, will no longer be relevant.

  4. Janice Klein says:

    Bravo Alana! The original article was so distasteful that I tried to ignore it, but your response is worth saving and repeating as often as necessary.

    One of the things I now enjoy most about museums is watching families learn together and use the information and ideas we provide as a jumping off place for discussion of their own histories and interests. It’s great to watch kids and parents (and grandparents) share stories that start with what they see at the museum and go on beyond that.

    I once had the pleasure of telling a child who was being “shushed” by an adult, that, as director, I was the only one who got to tell him to be quiet, and I was fine with the noise he was making.

  5. Anne Lane says:

    Thank you, Alana! A great rebuttal to a truly bad argument. I have no children, but my parents took us to museums all the time when we were children. Mom always said to me, “You should work in a museum.” Mom, look at me now. I learned not only to value, and to learn from, but to love museums, and while I did not set out with a position in one as a career goal, it happened. And the sounds of a class of children interacting with artifacts and our education guy is music to my ears.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *