Can babies enjoy museums?

Esme Ward , 01.05.2013
What a daft question,” was the initial response from parents at Manchester Museum’s fortnightly Baby Explorers session.

“There’s so much to see, touch, explore and experience. Cerys is wide-eyed and open-mouthed at the things here that we don’t have at home or anywhere else.”

We know that museums and galleries can provide a valuable social and learning context for families and new parents. However, only recently have we started to realise the potential of our sites as rich early communication environments for under-twos and babies.

We are playing catch up with the wider cultural sector as many of the UK’s theatres and orchestras have been producing work for under-twos for the past few years.

The Manchester Museums and Galleries Partnership (the Whitworth, Manchester Museum and Manchester Art Gallery) started working with under-twos, particularly babies-before-they-walk, in 2011.

Since then, it has developed participatory programmes and partnerships with nurseries, parent groups, health visitors, post-natal and family services. With prize money awarded by the 2012 Clore Award for Museum Learning, it is now seeking to address the wider museum sector, drive change and support innovation.

It has teamed up with Kids in Museums to produce the first sell-out Babies in Museums workshop, with delegates from over 40 organisations focused on finding out how babies learn, seeing babies in action, sharing tips and encouraging more museums to welcome and engage this audience.

The event explored the social, commercial and organisational benefits of working with babies, but perhaps the most thought-provoking response came from a scientific perspective. Anna Franklin from the University of Sussex Baby Lab’s research focused on how babies sense the world around them.

Using eye trackers and baby monitors, scientists have measured eye movements and looked at how babies respond to faces and objects. We learned how babies are budding physicists, seeking to understand their physical world through experimentation and how, even at six months, they can predict the trajectory of moving objects.

Finally, after showing film of a baby imitating Beyoncé dance moves, we learned about their capacity to learn and remember.

Franklin suggested that babies are ideal museum visitors – because they can sense and perceive, respond to beauty, recognise things, reason about objects and learn and remember.

Clearly, babies in museums is about much more than just enjoyment. Isn’t it time we started taking them seriously?

Esme Ward is the head of learning and engagement at the Whitworth Art Gallery and the Manchester Museum

The next Kids in Museums’ Babies in Museums workshop will be on 26 September at the Museum of Childhood, London


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10.07.2013, 20:02
Object learning is brilliant for under 5s, especially if babies and small children can handle objects so they can visually connect words with form, feel, weight, texture, movement, etc.

There is on average 5x more language in handling a real object with discussion on its weight, texture, temperature, inside, outside, how it moves etc, than any 2D representation can give a young child. Early years practitioners have led in this field; it is why Montessori and High Scope advocate using real objects, quality materials and toys made of wood rather than plastic. Museums are just catching on to the fact!

And there's so much potential for family learning, especially where English is a second language or illiteracy, language delay or learning disability might be an issue.

Given the consensus among experts that the most important learning of a person's life is the early years 1-5, this is one area where museums can genuinely 'add value'. But in so doing, it is essential trained and talented early years practitioners lead. Quality over numbers is what is important here; overwhelming numbers of small children with their families in museums is just a miserable experience for everyone, most of all for the children.
17.06.2013, 18:53
Dear Mrs Ward,

Could I ask you in which publication Anna Franklin suggested that babies are an ideal public for museums?
I am searching for academic literature on this topic.

Thank you!
Hannah Guthrie
MA Member
National and International Programmes and Projects Manager, Imperial War Museum
02.05.2013, 16:02
People based in London might be interested in the next GEM London twilight event, which looks at workign with ages 0-2.