The conversation

Leigh-Anne Stradeski; Sandra Stancliffe, Issue 114/12, p17, 01.12.2014
Do museums cater well for children?
Leigh-Anne Stradeski is the chief executive of Eureka! the National Children’s Museum, in Halifax; Sandra Stancliffe is the head of education and inclusion at English Heritage

Dear Sandra:

Children are an important and growing audience and this is increasingly being reflected in the attitude, content and approach that make up the museum experience. As a museum that was conceived and designed to capture the imaginations of children from birth to 11, Eureka! has inspired museum professionals throughout the UK.

Although not every museum has a dedicated children’s area, most are thinking more creatively about their collection, and building elements of role play, immersive learning and interactivity into their exhibits and programmes. But the key to doing it well is involving children in the planning.

Best wishes, Leigh-Anne

Dear Leigh-Anne:

I agree that many museums have brilliantly conceived and designed spaces and content that engage children, but far too often this is reduced to a dressing-up box or poorly written trail, or is something separated off from the “real” content.

Museums have been doing this for a long time and we need to be smarter about engaging children. Involving children in the planning is essential, but they must be able to interact with the actual designers, be they external companies or the in-house curator.

Children don’t know what is possible and will suggest what they have seen or experienced, so it is important not only to ask what they want, but to offer ideas and excite their imaginations.

Best wishes, Sandra

Dear Sandra:

It is true that involving children in planning requires guidance from professionals, but to say children “don’t know what is possible” does them a huge disservice. Many exhibits at Eureka!, as well as some of the best I have seen in museums around the world, have come to life thanks to children’s vivid imaginations and unconstrained thinking in a world in which almost anything is possible.

In essence, that is what great museums should do – inspire us all to think beyond the limits. Otherwise, there would be no innovation, no progress, no future. The challenge is to get more museum curators and designers thinking like children.

Best wishes, Leigh-Anne

Dear Leigh-Anne:

We agree that children have vivid imaginations and that adults have much to learn from them. But I still hold that involving children in planning experiences which interpret exhibits or themes that may be new to them is skilful and can be resource intensive.

Eureka! may have a lot of expertise and experience in this area, but many museums have neither the expertise nor the resources, and those that do are losing education staff in continuing cuts. Is more training at entry level and beyond needed? Or do chief executives still need convincing of the valuable contribution children can make?

Best wishes, Sandra

Dear Sandra:

There are competing demands for resources in all museums, and children need to be a priority to make this work. I am reminded of the Telegraph debate in February, “Should children be banned from museums?”, kick-started by a New York gallery director who was outraged by the behaviour of children at the Tate Modern. The fact that this debate is happening tells me we have a long way to go.

Best wishes, Leigh-Anne

Dear Leigh-Anne:

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child states that every child has the right to say what they think in all matters affecting them and to have their views taken seriously, and that every child has the right to relax, play and join in a wide range of cultural and artistic activities. All cultural organisations should be doing more to embed these principles.

Best wishes, Sandra

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