Q&A | ‘We’ve seen teenagers write off museums because of one negative interaction’
Curious Minds is an arts education charity that aims to increase young people’s access and participation with arts and culture. Set up in 2009 to deliver Arts Council England’s Creative Partnerships programme across Lancashire and Merseyside, Curious Mind’s mission is to provide strategic support to the cultural sector and support its workforce with systemic change as well as professional and programme development.
It recently launched - I’m A Teenager… Get Me Into There! a free online training programme to help encourage greater participation by young people in the UK's heritage and culture sector.
Kelly Allen, the charity’s executive director: social justice and inclusion, spoke to Museums Journal about the new programme – and why teenagers often don’t get the museum experience they deserve.
Curious Minds provides sector support to cultural educators – what challenges are they facing at the moment?
There are lots of different barriers and our I’m A Teenager course is just one response to those. At a policy level, it’s not a great time for arts and cultural education in schools and people are also experiencing great inequality and the cost of living crisis.
But there are learning teams absolutely dedicated to doing the best that they can and as a result brilliant work is going on. Volunteers are one area we’re looking at; a huge amount of work with young people is delivered by freelancers, but it’s a hard time for them.
During the pandemicn Curious Minds pivoted a little bit to try and work with and protect our freelance workforce more, and that has reenergized us. It’s important because if we're going to do good work with young people, then we have to be support the people who do the majority of the delivery.
Why do you think there is a need for museums to do the new training programme?
Research, such as the Value of Cultural Learning report, has helped us make the case for participation – we know that it's good for young people, that it improves their life chances, their social mobility and sense of citizenship.
Fortunately there are fewer people who still need persuading of that. But through our work, we regularly see learning participation staff doing great work getting young people into cultural buildings, but the organisation can work against itself if other staff are literally chasing them back out.
One thing we see quite often is young people having a great experience through planned programmes and projects, but having a very different experience when they return on independent visits. So they get quite inconsistent welcomes and relationships.
Something else we know through Curious Citizens, our mystery shopper programme with young first-time visitors, is that just one negative adult interaction can completely change everything for them. It doesn't matter how good the museum, exhibition or other staff are, if somebody growls at them right at the start, they will say ‘I’m never coming back here.”
In fact, it's so pervasive that we've seen young people dismiss the idea of ever going to a museum again because as far as they are concerned they will all be the same.
Being told off is awful for a young people because it's exposing and embarrassing. We've often found is that young people are quite happy with rules, they make them feel safe, but if they don’t know what the rules are there and therefore have a negative interaction, that can have huge consequences for them.
What changes can museums make to become more welcoming places to young people?
One of the things we do on the course is unpick people’s perceptions of young people – we ask them what they think of when they think of teenagers. And there's a fair bit of negative rhetoric there. But if you don’t get the honest responses then you can’t get past it.
Then we go back and ask where they’ve got that impression from, and the negative impressions generally come from the media and social media, as well as one-off stories.
We also ask them where their positive perceptions of teenagers come from, and generally they come from actual relationships with young people. What this tells us is the antidote to feeling negative about young people is to spend time with them, because they're wonderful, and they'll inspire you and they'll change your mind.
And that’s so important because we want front-of-house staff or volunteers to feel confident when interacting with teenagers. No one wants to be scared or uncomfortable at work.
The other thing we do on the course is look at the teenage brain works, which so many people even learning staff have never done training around. So yes, some of negative teenage behaviour is a misperception but some of it is correct – and when you understand the reasons behind the behaviour, it allows you to have a lot more compassion for them and understand how to respond.
Teenage years are a time when being sociable with peers is one of the most important things in the world. So you will see them in big groups because big groups make them feel safe. And what looks like boisterousness behaviour is actually them seeking reassurances that they’re safe.
How has your work with museums helped inform this course?
We’ve just come out of Hope Streets, a big five-year organisation change project with five museums – and we knew we have to take all of the staff with us to achieve the level of change that we’re aiming for, which is to completely transform the way they work with young people outside of school visits or settings.
We developed four-day training with staff but often the people who need it most such as front-of-house staff and volunteers can’t get the time to do this. What they need is information that can be done as part of an induction, for example.
We just want them to have access to this for free is a format that’s easy to digest in chunks. Because we want young people to feel welcome and museums. That's what it all boils down.