should art museums be family-friendly?

nimg (not in my gallery)

Some believe that museums, particularly of the art variety, are solemn, sacred spaces akin to churches where respect, decorum and good taste should prevail.   What could be worse than attempting to appreciate the subtlety of pointillism with a cranky baby as your soundtrack? There’s plenty of places for them to go.  Don’t disturb this groove!

If you want your kid to crawl all over something and make a bunch of noise, take them to the zoo.  –Name Withheld By Request, via Twitter.

Anyone who has spent considerable time with children knows that the characteristics most conducive to silent, contemplative gazing are developed over time.  Besides, young people do not have a lock on bad manners.  But even the most well-behaved child is capable of a meltdown-worthy moment or two.  So considering the awesome and unpredictable nature of young people, should museums be encouraging this lot to grace their doors?

Um, yeah.

Consider that the traditional entrée into art museums for children is via school-sanctioned visits.  It is not uncommon for schools to designate only one grade to visit a museum each year.  This practice has many reasons, including budget restraints, No Child Left Behind requirements and the perceived unworthiness of museum visits.    That ultimately results in a large amount of young people through the doors, but does not even begin to compare to the numbers of families with young children living in metropolitan or regional areas who may potentially visit, and these are the museum members of the future.

When I meet visitors who say, “I haven’t been here in 30 years”,  I ask them how they came to visit all those years ago.  They almost overwhelmingly respond it was with their elementary school.  Now don’t get me wrong, I am a huge proponent of school art museum visits (I schedule over 14,000 students for visits each year) and their value in terms of future visitorship has been well-documented, but while many museums expend commendable effort to increase the number of school visits and/or bring that experience to schools directly, depending solely on the traditional school-visit model to supply young visitors is unsustainable.   Whether they like it or not, museums have to accept the fact that families are a large and important audience that warrants attention.

I work in art museum education, so it makes sense that I am preoccupied with this subject.  My duties are split across areas that serve school-based populations and the general public (and all of the overlap inherent within.)  I am in a unique position to observe most of the ways in which audiences are introduced to an art museum, and it has become apparent to me that it is no longer sufficient to just direct families to the artwork and say “good luck.”  Although some bemoan this development, believing that museums are no longer just about art, I am constantly asked if there is anything for young people and families “to do” while they visit.  By that they mean engaging, interactive activities that will help them interpret and enjoy the art together, not as separate entities.   Is that really too much to ask?

what does a family-friendly museum look like?

Kid-friendly museum = strollers allowed, play areas available, noise encouraged, healthy food @ cafe.  Not having those accommodations makes it much less likely that I’ll be a museum visitor and donor. —RobynFehrman via Twitter

Kids in Museums, an organization that promotes “family-friendly policies and attitudes throughout Britain,” was founded after a writer and her son were given the bum’s rush at the Royal Academy of Arts for being “too noisy.”   Their suggestions for ensuring a positive experience culminates in a yearly crowd-sourced manifesto and they frequently send families undercover to determine which museum best fulfills the criteria, an honor sponsored by the U.K. newspaper, The Guardian.

I find these suggestions from the manifesto most critical:

  • Be interactive and hands-on.  Aim to connect all activities, events and interactives directly to the collection.  Galleries of shiny do-dads and please-touch-me trinkets mean nothing if  no one engages with the art.
  • Give a friendly goodbye.  A lot of attention is paid to greeting, but the parting interaction is just as–if not more–important.  Why not make their last impression a good one? When families depart from education programs, I make a point of saying “See you next time” or “Thank you for coming.”  And I sincerely mean it.   Altruistic joy from sharing art with them aside, I would not have a job without their support and I appreciate that.
  • Provide healthy, good-value food.  Often, museums will do a stellar job of communicating a family-friendly vibe, but the restaurants serve menu items catering to a distinctly adult palate.   You can still provide high-quality food that young people will recognize without sacrificing taste and presentation.  Put that PB&J on wheat bread, not brioche.
  • Answer kids’ questions.   Adults usually give me funny looks when I do this, but the kids seem to appreciate it.  I remember feeling annoyed when adults talked about me like I was invisible.  And if you’re trying to get information on art classes, why shouldn’t I ask the potential student what kind of art (if any) he or she enjoys? I prefer going to the source.

Focusing on families does not mean that they are above the rules, but making them feel like annoying house guests who have worn out their welcome is counterproductive and just plain rude.   If the museum’s mission states that art is for everyone, actions have to speak louder than words.

In a recent post, I suggested ways to make art museum visits enjoyable for everyone.    Which art museums make you feel the family love?

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3 thoughts on “should art museums be family-friendly?

  1. Pingback: 2010 in review « Cabinet of Curiosities

  2. Very good points. We should definitely be encouraging children and families to visit museums, not discouraging.

    I love when museums have some interactive sections, like touchable art/sculptures, puzzles for kids to work out, and even timelines where kids have to figure out the order of historical events. Active applications of what they’ve learned are important.

    And let’s face it, grown ups like interactive activities too!

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    • A lot of people are kinetic learners, so having something that you can put your hands on is crucial. The timelines are nice because it helps put the things you’re looking at into perspective and being able to draw a direct line from the past to your present can lead to some amazing observations.

      And you are not alone, in a recent trip to the Denver Art Museum my husband and I spent a good 20 minutes stamping and drawing on postcards in the “kid” area. It was a lot of fun!

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