Museums need to grow up

The problem with many UK museums is they treat everyone like kids.

Russell McCarthy

Topics Culture

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Earlier this week on spiked, Alexander Adams argued that museums and galleries are no place for children.

I couldn’t disagree more. The problem isn’t the children. No, the problem is that museums expect too little of adults and increasingly seem to pander to the perceived interests of children. This is what has caused museums and galleries to go from being places located firmly in the adult realm to being glorified play centres. Rather than arguing for children to be excluded from museums, we should be arguing against the infantilisation of museums.

The choice is not as stark as either allowing children to run amok in museums or banning them from entering. It is perfectly reasonable to allow children into museums and expect them to behave appropriately while they’re there. The transformation of our galleries and museums into crèches is of course something to be resisted. Today it seems that the dress-up areas and colouring tables are encroaching ever further into museums, turning some into places adults without children would have little reason to visit. However, making museums child-friendly show as much contempt for children as it does for adults.

Children, even young children, are capable of appreciating art and history, or, at the very least, of exhibiting a spark which will grow into an interest over time. The move to make museums more relevant to children’s interests does children a disservice. Children need to be constantly challenged, and while it may be true that children are sometimes bored by museums, the same is true of school. Yet few would argue that children don’t belong in school. If children are precluded from visiting museums we run the risk of raising a generation of philistines.

Pablo Picasso began studying art and visiting galleries aged seven. Heinrich Schliemann, the great nineteenth-century archaeologist, was exposed to classical statuary and the work of Homer at a very young age. Aged eight he declared that he would one day discover the lost city of Troy, an ambition he fulfilled four decades later. While it may be wishful thinking to expect your own brats to become the next Picasso or Schliemann, such examples demonstrate the potential benefits of exposing children to art and high culture at a young age.

The importance of quietness, politeness and not touching exhibits is not disputed, but these virtues must be firmly impressed upon children. Simply excluding children because they may sometimes break these rules is lazy.

There has been a tendency over recent decades to dumb down children’s school education. With that, there has been a slackening of the importance of self-discipline and what is expected of them more generally. To ban children from museums, and to further limit their opportunities to engage with art and culture in the adult sphere, would do nothing to reverse the dumbing down and slackening of self-discipline. In fact, it could only exacerbate the situation. The idea of excluding children from museums is as much an acceptance of the tyranny of relevance as the over-the-top pandering to children that goes on at the moment. Under the relevance paradigm, if one accepts that museums should not go out of their way to be relevant to children then the logical conclusion is that they should not be in museums at all.

A pre-emptive ban on children in museums also undermines the responsibilities of parents. Children learn to behave as adults by interacting with the adult sphere. To exclude them is only to postpone the age they will reach maturity. The old adage that ‘children should be seen and not heard’ is now considered incredibly reactionary, but it contains an important insight: children should be encouraged to behave maturely. Excluding them from places of adult intellectual interest, such as museums, will do precisely the opposite.

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Topics Culture


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