Are museums turning into playgrounds?

Sunday 19 October, 14.00 until 15.30, Conservatory, Barbican Creative Conundrums

Many museums dedicate considerable resources to catering for schoolchildren and family visits.  However, if they are not kept under close adult supervision and control, children can be disruptive for other museum visitors. Last year, the Department for Media, Culture and Sport (DCMS) reported a decline of 10 per cent over two years in the number of children visiting museums, particularly 11- to 15-year-olds. Is this decline to be welcomed or does it mean that museums are not doing a good job for young visitors?

Those who believe that museums should encourage children’s visits argue that such experiences will create a lifelong love of museums and gives them early exposure to, and develop their passion for, wonderful works of art and historical artefacts. Some also believe that museums that encourage such engagement enhance children’s development and education.

But there are dangers, too. At the National Gallery, a school student recently spilled water on a priceless painting. At the Museum of Fine Arts in Milan, a student broke a nineteenth-century statue by climbing on it to take a ‘selfie’. A child was recently spotted climbing on to a modern sculpture at Tate Modern while her parents looked on. While such serious incidents are rare, the presence of children more generally can undermine the peace required to study and contemplate the objects on show.

How far should museums go in accommodating children? Should they provide specially designed resources for children, or does this approach patronise children who should be expected to act more like adults in the museum environment? Can well-managed access, which encourages children to respect the ‘don’t touch’ rules of museums, be good for them and for museums, or does it put invaluable objects at unnecessary risk? Does such child-centred access really benefit children as much as is claimed?

Dr Maurice Davies
partner, the Museum Consultancy; senior research fellow, Department of Management, King's College London

Ivan Hewett
chief music critic, Daily Telegraph; professor, Royal College of Music; broadcaster; author, Music: healing the rift

Dr Tiffany Jenkins
writer and broadcaster; author, Keeping Their Marbles: how treasures of the past ended up in museums and why they should stay there

Jenny Wedgbury
acting programme manager for families, V&A

Dr Wendy Earle
impact development officer, Birkbeck, University of London; convenor, Academy of Ideas Arts and Society Forum

Produced by
Dr Wendy Earle impact development officer, Birkbeck, University of London; convenor, Academy of Ideas Arts and Society Forum
Recommended readings
Tiffany Jenkins: Stop children taking over our museums and galleries

Sociologist Tiffany Jenkins is speaking at a Battle of Ideas session called, “Are museums turning into playgrounds?” She is concerned that they are

Tiffany Jenkins, Ideas Tap, 26 September 2014

Museums need to grow up

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

Rossa Minogue, spiked, 28 February 2014

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