Museums are not playgrounds

Museums are good for children, but campaigns to make them more ‘family-friendly’ are bad for kids, adults and culture.

Tiffany Jenkins

Topics Culture

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Kids in museums. Sounds a bit like motherhood and apple pie – a Good Thing. But think again. In the past couple of years a campaign to turn galleries into childish places has been gathering pace. This is not a Good Thing. It’s time for a defence of museums for grown-ups.

The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), an influential British think-tank, recently published a report on museums and education with contributions from senior arts professionals, including Nicholas Serota, director of the Tate galleries. Amongst other things, the contributors launched a campaign to establish ‘cultural rights’ for children and pledged to give young people equal status with adults.

This high-profile report followed a manifesto published by the campaign group Kids in Museums, whose patron is the journalist and TV presenter Mariella Frostrup. At the campaign’s unveiling, Frostrup declared that institutions need to ditch the ‘unwelcoming atmosphere’ that has characterised them in the past and welcome the young if they are to thrive in the future.

Now, I am far from being a grumpy old lady who thinks things were better in the golden olden days when children were seen and not heard. Galleries are free and fun crèches where you and the kids can while away time, talking about paintings, stuffed animals and what things were like in the past. The campaigns for child-friendly museums do have some sensible suggestions, such as museums should be welcoming and provide good, cheap food. But it is their advocacy of childish behaviour and their anti-adult focus that is worrying.

Let’s start with the war on silence. One of Kids in Museums’ 20 suggestions for how to make visits more family-friendly is: ‘Don’t say ssssshush!’. The campaign director, Dea Birkett, argues that being noisy and sitting down are natural and that too often kids are told to be quiet. She advocates chatting and sofas.

I don’t recognise this nightmare scenario of children being shushed. In my experience the opposite is more common, and that is a shame. Because there are times when silence is golden and it is appropriate to tell the young to be quiet. There are occasions when we should think and not talk, when it’s appropriate to observe and reflect, rather than chit chat.

Just because kids like to be ‘noisy’ and like to sit down on comfy sofas, that doesn’t mean adults should bend over backwards to facilitate this. It is our responsibility, as the older generations, to socialise children, to set guidelines and parameters for behaviour.

We should tell children that they are not always right, that they cannot just behave how they wish, and that they should be quiet and stand up when required. Involving the young in adult conduct is part of the process through which they grow up and mature.

Another grand demand of the IPPR report is for museums ‘not merely to provide some facilities which meet the needs of children and young people’ – which is perfectly sensible – but also to ‘treat [children] as equal participants in determining what museums offer’ – which is deranged.

Fawning over kids and consulting with them on what should go in to museums suggests that that the exhibitions are about them. But museums are not about ‘me, me, me’. They are about other people and other places: different times, countries, peoples, ideas.

We should encourage children to be interested in the creation of past human civilisations – scientific breakthroughs, artistic achievements, other ways of living – and to respect the experts, who are not their equals, to explain it all. Teenagers are already self-obsessed, so let’s take them out of themselves, into other worlds, rather than make them the centre of attention in galleries, too.

Today, instead of upholding adult authority and knowledge as valuable, such things are denied and denigrated. Curators chase after children and hang on their every word. It’s excruciating how professionals salivate over youthful interests, grovelling over their ideas, desperate to get them in the door.

Museums don’t have to be turned into playgrounds to be enjoyable. When I was a child it was adult spaces that appeared mysterious and attractive. I wanted to stay up late, go out when it was dark, listen in on adults’ conversations. I wanted access to the intriguing life of a grown-up. I was keen to be treated as older than my years.

Museums can offer an exciting world if they get off their knees and stop apologising for being quiet and popular with old folk, or different from computer games or shopping. Galleries have nothing to be ashamed of, yet professionals are acting as if they do. Next time you hear adults crying for child-friendly policies, tell them to ssssshush!

Tiffany Jenkins is a sociologist and cultural commentator. Visit her website here.

Previously on spiked

Tiffany Jenkins warned of the Druids at the gates of British museums and considered how to preserve the future of museums. Anna Travis felt that interactive art was turning galleries into mindless playgrounds. Josie Appleton said museum directors should concentrate on looking after the galleries, and leave changing the world to the people. Yascha Mounk said those who oppose corporate sponsorship of the Louvre should be weary of state influence on museums, too. Or read more at spiked issue Museums and galleries.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Culture


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