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?

needle in a haystack

Have you noticed the euphemisms created to describe the economy? Phrases like “recent economic downturn”, “rough patch”, “slow economic growth” and “credit crunch” are tossed about like confetti, all in an effort to keep from telling us what we already know–the economy sucks.  The fact that 14.6 million people in the United States alone are unemployed is frightening.   Does that stat make anyone else want to run screaming through the streets?  Either we’re really great at policing ourselves, or we’ve collectively bought into the hype that everything is okay.  I don’t know about you, but something don’t feel right out here.  And the aforementioned figure doesn’t even take into account those who haven’t filed for unemployment benefits, have just given up on ever finding work or are retired.

As evidenced by the preceeding paragraph, the current economy is on my mind, and I’m noticing how it’s playing out amongst the recently graduated.  In the past couple of months, I’ve been asked “How did you get your job?” with increasing frequency and urgency as newly-minted art, art history, museology and art education grads find themselves scrapping for specialized museum jobs alongside displaced museum employees and/or sector switchers.   Finding entry-level work in the museum field was tough before the economy went south.  Now, I’m being told, it is nearly impossible.

Interning used to be a golden ticket into the field.  But with the Department of Labor investigating the potential illegality of that unpaid labor force, expect many of those positions to dry up if  the Feds insist that minimum wage and/or benefits are required.   And even if cash-strapped museums are able to slip through the unpaid loophole, whom but the most affluent among us can afford to work long-term for free?

Some feel an advanced degree will make you stand out from the pack.  With most full-time entry-level positions at museums  now requiring an undergraduate degree, this seems like a sensible course of action.   But Nina Simon at Museum 2.0 wonders if museum studies graduate programs are worth the effort, contributing to unnecessary barriers being placed before potential museum employees, while Center for the Future of Museums suggests that museums skip the college crowd altogether in their staffing searches.

So how did I find my job?  When I was in AmeriCorps, I emailed my sister (a recently-graduated art major) info about a position at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.     She scored that gig (’cause she’s awesome).  Several months later, as she prepared to move out of state, she informed me that the Museum was trying to fill a program assistant position in the Education Department.  For sure, the fact that she referred me helped, but everything after that was up to the fates.   I can’t say for sure what combination of experience, education, moxie or bargaining with a higher power gave me the edge, but it wasn’t an easy process.  I had a total of four interviews: two via phone, a one-on-one in person, and a group in-person.  After all that, I was so grateful to get it, I never thought about asking why they hired me!   *adding that to my to-do list* 

Apparently, my entry into the museum field was a bit nontraditional (no art, art history, education or museology background), so I decided to ask  May Evans, a degreed museologist, about her recent experiences with museum employment prospects (or the lack thereof.) Her responses definitely provided much-needed insight into this issue.  A poet, blogger, artist, museum-lover and self-described “weirdo with a big heart”, you can also follow Ms. Evans on Twitter @readheadgirl.

Why did you decide to pursue a museum-related degree?

I was searching for a grad school to put me on a career path after earning a degree in English: Creative Writing. I’d done that largely for personal development. I have been writing poetry since I was twelve and I loved working with words. Unfortunately, the only career paths I could see with that degree weren’t anything I was interested in at the time: marketing, specifically, but working for a corporation generally.  I was looking for something that was in the non-profit world when I ran across the University of Washington’s Interdisciplinary Museology Master’s program.  Instantly this made sense for me. I have been in more museums than I can name over my life! Most of my family vacations were arranged around museums and historical sites to visit and I have always been in love with art and the art museums that house it.  That’s the long answer. The short answer is that I couldn’t image myself in any other career path at the time.

Where did you study?

I studied at the University of Washington, Seattle. While I was there I worked for two years in on-campus Henry Art Gallery.  I also had internships at three other museums, one of which turned into my final project for the program.

How many attempts at securing museum-related work have you made?

I can’t say how many in total I’ve made since before I graduated from UW 3 years ago, but since February 2010, I’ve made 35 attempts.

Has the experience been positive or negative?

Overwhelmingly negative. Most museums will never get back with me. The ones that do normally respond that while my skills are impressive, they went with a candidate who more closely matched their needs.  I have not gotten a single interview from a museum in all this time.

What are the common barriers you have experienced in pursuing museum work?

My hugest barrier is that I do not have much more than two years worth of museum experience, and only two years of PAID museum experience.  Most museum job postings I’ve seen asks for 3+ years of experience at the least. Sometimes this keeps me from applying and sometimes it doesn’t.   Either way, it isn’t helpful and it makes me concerned I might never get the type of work I want to do.  My other barrier is that many museums want a curator to have a Ph.D. in some type of art.   Since I don’t have a B.A. in art, it’s basically impossible for me to get a Ph.D. in it as most universities require that. So I feel I can’t even further my education any more in order to get over my inexperience barrier, which is doubly frustrating.

What should museums do to encourage and develop the next generation of museum workers?

Be willing to consider applicants with less than “ideal” education or experience.  Provide a broader range of volunteer activities that prospective employees could take part in.

Are you frustrated by your search for museum-related work? Check  out the resources below and feel free to add your suggestions, tips or responses in the comments.

How to Get a Job in Museums Part 1

How to Get a Job in Museums Part 2

Deb’s Unofficial Guide to Getting a Job in the Museum World

So You Want to Work in a Museum? Confessions of an Art History Major

from candidate to graduate

Now that I am officially graduated, people keep asking me , “so now what?” I really had to ponder that because completing my degree was more of a personal goal than a professional one.  Although a masters degree may have  positive professional implications, I’ve been too caught up in celebrating the fact that I made it out alive and relatively sane to think about what comes next.

It was challenging selecting a masters program.  I knew I wanted to study and research museums, but I really wasn’t interested in becoming a curator or an art historian.  I didn’t want to relocate, so I had to narrow it down even further to programs offered locally or online. 

 Despite having a close relationship with The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art since its inception, University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC) does not offer a formal museum studies program.   There is a program at University of Kansas, but it seemed heavy on curation and conservation (kudos for offering an introduction to museum education course, though) and none of the classes were offered in the evening.   I briefly considered the online program at University of Oklahoma, but I missed their application deadline and wanted to start my program right away.    Unfortunately, I was a year into my studies when Johns Hopkins’ program went live.   At that point none of my credits would have transferred and  it would have been a colossal waste of money.  Call me crazy, but I may still go for that one!  As I made my decision, Nina Simon’s Museum 2.0  post on the value (or lack thereof) of museum grad programs was definitely on my mind. 


My degree is a Master of Arts Liberal Studies with a concentration in Museum Education and New Media from UMKC.   The program was a great fit as it was developed for working students and you were able to select your own area of study.   Being cursed blessed with a multidisciplinary brain, it definitely suited my style of learning.   I also chose this program because of the campus’ proximity to work and the fact that I could receive tuition assistance for some of my courses (a benefit of the aforementioned close relationship.)

So What’s Next?

  • Continue researching the roles of  African-American museum employees.   
  • Considering  an arts management certificate.
  • Investigating the possibility of an interdisciplinary PhD.  The Roommate is pursuing a PhD in Information Science and seems to think “Dr. and Dr. Russell” has a nice ring to it. 
  • Completing my fundraising certificate in the fall. 
  • Getting decent sleep.
  • Reading for fun.

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