Why museums should be family-friendly spaces

Dea Birkett explores ways to make museums child-friendly

Once, museums were unwelcoming buildings with a few crumbling objects sitting in glass cases. The only information would be a small browning label dwarfed by a large sign: “Don’t touch.” But it’s time to explore your local museum, as they’re changing. Now Museums have family events and workshops, computer interactives, Saturday clubs, and family backpacks stuffed with jigsaws and puzzles to help you explore the galleries. Most museums are no longer boring but fun – for the whole family.

It’s important that everyone, of every age, feels welcome at a museum – and, in particular, children. A major factor in adults deciding whether to visit a museum is if they think their children will enjoy it. As Abu Dhabi builds its Louvre, Guggenheim and Zayed National Museums, as well as many other museum developments elsewhere in the region, the question being asked is: How can they best attract children and families?

It’s not all family trails and activity sheets. Being child-friendly is as much about attitude as facilities. The real barrier to families and children visiting is not that there’s nothing for them to do, but they’re worried about how they are expected to behave. What if a toddler has a tantrum? Is there a risk they’ll put their sticky fingers on the masterpiece paintings? And will other visitors object to the noise they make in the hushed galleries? It’s true – children will inevitably bring new behaviour to museums. They don’t act as lone adults might. But the bravest museums welcome and embrace this.

So what counts as good behaviour in a museum? You would think it was set in stone. But it’s interesting to note that how we react to culture changes over time. For example, the composer Mozart used to be upset if his concerts were quiet. A raucous, continually applauding crowd was a sign that they were appreciating one of his new works. Yet today, we are asked to sit on our hands and remain hushed at a classical music concert.

Surely there are things that are simply wrong for a child to do, such as clamber over the artwork? Well, not always. At Emirati Expressions at the Manarat Al Saadiyat, for example, we’re greeted with the sign: “You can sit on the sculpture.”

Anyone, of any age, can climb on Zeinab Al Hashemi’s giant discarded camel hair and wood sculpture and feel its scratchiness for themselves. They can also sit down on the majilis that frame Hind bin Demaithan’s interactive piece and draw the giant curtains of Farah Al Qasimi’s photographic work. All of us are encouraged to interact with and experience the art.

Even those paintings that need to be protected can still be interacted with.

At the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilisation, families can pick up backpacks full of activities or go on an Islamic Patterns colouring trail. At the Maritime Museum, there are interactive screens that allow us to guess how long a diver needs to hold his breath when searching for pearls.

At the Science Museum, we can join a workshop and create our own light-up robot. These free resources encourage children to sit down and ponder about the objects, rather than wander off.

Good family provision makes for better behaviours in museums, not worse.

If art, culture and heritage is to be alive, it can’t be a thing on a wall or a stuffed thing in a cabinet. It’s something we experience and have a conversation about, not just look at silently. The very best child-and family-friendly museums encourage us to do just that.

Dea Birkett is director of the British charity Kids in Museums (www.kidsinmuseums.org.uk)

The British Council is hosting Learning in Museums, a panel discussion for cultural professionals, parents, teachers and university students at Warehouse 421, Mina Zayed, Abu Dhabi, at 6pm on Wednesday, March 30