Museum Babies

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What we want to see is the child in pursuit of knowledge, not knowledge in pursuit of the child.” George Bernard Shaw (from The Painter’s Keys)

Art museums are increasingly working to draw in children. New programs for children are springing up everywhere in museums. The museums are relaxing behavior standards in this effort. Where once a museum was a place of refuge where anyone could spend time in thoughtful contemplation of art has now become a refuge for the tired parent to dump the kids. How many children are able to contemplate art? Children are unquestionably creative and curious but is an art museum a good place to encourage this?

In an article for The Scotsman (through Artsjournal.com), Tiffany Jenkins discusses the drawbacks of having the museum doors thrown wide open to school age children with free rein. The museums are making a point to discourage the “shhhushing” of children in the museum, allowing children to run and play throughout the museum. Jenkins says of this policy, “It accommodates everything to those who don’t really want to be in a museum, rather than showing them something challenging and worthwhile.” Are museums encouraging children to learn about art or are they collecting babysitting fees?

A couple, with three small children were in the museum when some friends and I attended an exhibit of the Dutch Masters. While contemplating these wonderful masterpieces, we were treated to crying, toy throwing, screaming and other sounds of children being children. The parents made very little attempt to suppress any of this behavior. It went on for the entire time we were there. Some of the toy throwing came very close to these beautiful works of art. Like Tiffany Jenkins, I felt a bit curmudgeonly for thinking that perhaps the museum was not the best place for children of this age. I couldn’t see that the children were getting anything out of the experience either.

Are we helping children understand and appreciate art by encouraging them to use an art museum as a playground? The interactive play rooms that some museums have added is a good thing, but is allowing children to run and play through exhibits of art, teaching them anything about art? As my inner curmudgeon has come out on this one, I would love to hear what others have to say about this issue. Is it a good thing or not??

Imagine the following exhibit with children running around being children while you contemplate this art: