Thursday, 20 October 2016

Kids in museums

An article in aeon by Brian Switek deplores what he sees as the infantilization of natural history museums. The desire to attract children inevitably introduces a childish ambience. Plus children of course.

Whenever I visit a natural history museum, especially if I’m intent on seeing the dinosaurs, I try to arrive early and race over to the exhibits before the school groups and strollers are set loose upon the floor. And I’m not alone in my concerns. As I’ve chatted with other museum-goers, the same lament has come up over and over again: as a culture, we’ve been steadily nudging natural history museums to become more like theme parks or the cartoonish restaurant chain Chuck E Cheese’s. (As Tiffany Jenkins has pointed out, the same problems plague today’s anthropology and art institutions as well, not to mention aquariums and zoos.) If visitors leave with even a chunklet of new knowledge, it’s a win.

As a paid-up curmudgeon I should agree with this but I don't. If museums manage to compete against Pokémon it's a win.

Museums were originally meant to be places of inspiration, literally the ‘seat of the Muses’. In our 21st-century interpretation, however, we expect them to function as providers of kid-oriented entertainment more than anything else.

Maybe so but on the whole they were not particularly inspiring. Inspiration was mostly imported by visitors, at least that's my memory of the museum experience. Do adults learn much from museums anyway?

One needs a fair amount of background knowledge to make the most of museums. Attracting kids may encourage a few of them to go away and acquire it. Not many perhaps, but at least as many as in more sedate but also duller times.


Sam Vega said...

Yes, it's true about museums, and also libraries. And the National Trust go in for it. "Edutainment", which presents what used to be academic knowledge in a children's pop-culture format. I guess it engages more of them, but I wonder if it isn't mostly used as a cheap outing where the parents can absolve themselves of the responsibility to explain and (more importantly) enthuse. In a way, it represents other agencies taking over parental roles, and as such I treat it with suspicion.

Edward Spalton said...

The same applies to almost all natural history and historical documentaries on radio and television.
They are mostly reduced to the infantile level of "Horrible Histories" which, I understand are now used
In schools.
There used to be programmes for grown-ups which children could watch, understand and enjoy.
I can still remember some parts of programmes narrated by Sir Mortimer Wheeler and others.
They did not talk down to their audiences but carried them along with their enthusiasm for
their subject.

wiggiatlarge said...

I can only add to what Edward Spalton has said all of which is correct, but you can take it further, I call it the Blue Peter effect for in many cases ex Blue Peter presenters now elevated to "adult" programs persist in presenting programs as though all are ten years old waiting with scissors and old newspapers for instructions on how to build a battleship.

Even Countryfile, extremely popular ? has gone this route and many others, all it seems is being systematically dumbed down.

Anonymous said...

All to do with managerialism - measure the footfall, get in a retail consultant, cut the budget, get rid of the bumbling old curators and add on a shopfront. Umberto Eco caught the modern obsession well in Faith in Fakes.

DCBain said...

I'm probably not ading much but I have long held that there are two museum styles. These are- the professional, where a selection of objects is shown so that the items can be fully appreciated and the - usually local - amateur. Here, in their enthusiasm, the curators show everything they've got in crammed display cases. I can enjoy both in their place but there is the recent addition to contend with which is a pain in the neck; the electroneum. Here, next to nothing is displayed but you can sit at a keyboard to have Powerpoint presentations of the items you'd really prefer to see in the flesh inflicted on you. I have also seen this method in aquaria particularly The Deep in Hull and one in Boulogne, where we are assured that the oceans are suffering and IT'S ALL YOUR FAULT!

Demetrius said...

Easy, feed the kids to dinosaur working models. Problem solved. Some NT etc. places these days remind me of the old fun park at Southport in the 40's. Up to a point, these days you can't get decent fresh fried fish and chips.

James Higham said...

As a former educator, I'm also in two minds. Perhaps there could be a time for groups and a time for the public.

Flyinthesky said...

DCBain, you have added a key element, in my opinion, with your last sentence: agenda driven nudge messaging. It's not just museums and libraries, it's endemic in almost all factual and pseudo factual TV programmes.

Edward Spalton said...


What a brilliant solution! Reminds me of a trip to Drayton Manor Park years ago with children aged approx five and three.
They had a zoo-like display of dinosaur models in paddocks. Then, as you came round a corner in the woods, there was a
full size T Rex in the pathway.
" I wouldn't go any closer, Mummy' said Charles (5).

So I strode out to tap the side of the beast.
"It's all right, Mum! It's just a model!" He said.

" Charles, if that had been real, I wouldn't have stopped running until Scotland"

Young imagination is a marvellous thing but there needs to be a distinction between entertainment and education - although
Parts of education can be entertaining and " caught not taught" from a well-informed, enthusiastic teacher.

A K Haart said...

Sam - agencies may be taking over parental roles, but from what I see parents find it easier to join in. Not everyone has the ability to enthuse on demand but with some assistance more can.

Edward - you are right, 'Horrible Histories' are used in schools. 'Horrible Science' too, although from my reading with Grandson these are not as bad as the histories.

Wiggia - yes, the adult stuff is dumbed down. Telegenic presenters seem to score over those who actually know a thing or two.

Roger - I'll make a note of Faith in Fakes. It is available on Kindle - just checked.

DCB - Derby museum has a section which is very much like your first example of professional displays. It is a display of Derby china going back to about 1750 plus other pottery and china also made in Derbyshire. A very interesting display, but best seen with a pretty solid background in the whole subject. Not for kids, but not many adults will have much idea either. As a result it tends to be almost empty.

Demetrius - Jurassic Park brought to life near you.

James - yes and the writer of the piece achieved that by choosing the best time to go.

Fly - and films. I have a post in mind on that subject.