Why we need to listen to kids – by @MarDixon

Here is a guest post from Mar Dixon (@MarDixon)

You can check her website out here!

Why we need to listen to Kids

For most institutions (museums, art galleries and heritage venues) there used to be a common ethos internationally that kids were almost an after-thought to the layout and design of exhibitions and events.  Now, thankfully, kids are starting to get the respect they deserve.

In a grand palace like Versailles, they avoided Do Not Touch signs by having gentle, but effective plastic acrylic on delicate doors and furniture that might get brushed by visitors.

I won’t get into the ‘remember when’, but do try to reflect back to what your early experiences at museum was like.  Dressing up box? Maybe some crayons thrown on a table? Or even better, not being able to read but know Those Signs meant Do Not Touch?

There are lots of reasons that museums/art galleries/heritage venues need to ensure certain artefacts are not touched, and I completely understand that.  However, I do wonder how many institutions actually looked at their own exhibitions through the eyes of children.

Here in the UK, we have a wonderful charity called Kids in Museum which was started when Dea Birkett’s son was thrown out of a museum for being too noisy (how many can relate to that?).  This lead to the development of a family-friend Kids in Museum Manifesto – 20 obtainable guidelines for participates to follow when they agree to be a supporter of the philosophy. [The link to sign up to the manifesto is on the link.]

I’ve been fortunate enough to travel internationally and have seen some great examples of brilliant Kids in Museums ethos being used.  However, there are some common mistakes that I’ve seen too. I’ll try not to repeat the items that are stated in the Manifesto in my personal list of items I speak to museums, galleries and heritage venues about:

Setting an area for kids to draw and colour.  Great!  Kids love to draw and use their imagination.  Having worksheets related to your institution is even better.  However – please make sure you have a pencil sharpener nearby.  There is nothing worse then going for a colour pencil to find none have tips.

Limit the use of Please Do Not Touch signs.  We know the valuable objects shouldn’t be touched, but constantly repeating it isn’t necessary.  Instead of telling the kids what they can’t touch, highlight what they CAN touch.  Or if you can have subtle signs and ways to communication the dreaded Do Not touch.

For example, at Attingham Park National Trust, they place teasels on chairs that you’re not allowed to sit on and Please Sit Here signs where you can.  Additionally, if you can, try to have a volunteer hold objects that are normally stored in the back and allowed the children to touch them.  This inspires great conversation and memories.

In a grand palace like Versailles, they avoided Do Not Touch signs by having gentle, but effective plastic acrylic on delicate doors and furniture that might get brushed by visitors.

Dressing-up boxes are fabulous, but please do take pride in them if you expect the kids to.  Ripped and tattered items just thrown in a box is not what kids want.  Make  sure you have items for kids of all ages – adults like to dress up too!  And please have a mirror nearby.

Talk to the kids.  If you have an activity worksheet that has the kids going around looking for items, that is great, but not enough.  Have the guards, users, volunteers try to interact and give clues (if possible).  Having this acknowledgement makes such a difference to them.

Or better still, start a weekly forum for kids to meet to learn and discuss things that they want to learn and things you can teach them.  In France, some art galleries have weekly drop in sessions for kids as young as 4.

Kids come in all different shapes and sizes and so should your activities.  Ask them for their feedback, trust me, they’d love to share! And if you tried something and it didn’t work, well done for trying!  Not all activities are going to work, even with the best of intentions.

Provide items related to the exhibition that kids can play with.  Majority of the children have respect for the items (ok, not all but lets not punish the ones that do).  Recently, we attended the House of Metal exhibition at Birmingham Art Gallery.  What my daughter loved the most is playing the guitar and the drums – something she would never have had the opportunity to do.  It’s that building of memories that is so crucial.

Most importantly, let’s embrace that our next generation wants to visit our museums, art galleries and heritage venues.  If we don’t respect their passion, when they are in office and running the show, they might decide not to support them.

If you have seen good examples of museums and galleries embracing kids please feel free to share with me.