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May 26, 2016

Museums Places of Child’s Play?

by @thoughtontracks

Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on defunct, Central Indiana arts website Sky Blue Window on November 19, 2014. Some content, style and formatting changes may differ from the original version. 

recent study in the Journal of Early Childhood Literacy created a stir in the museum community. The reaction was spurred by coverage in the press, where attention-grabbing editorial tactics and divisive quotes from prominent artists misrepresented the author’s conclusion as a call to allow children to run free in museums. This reaction comes despite the fact that the museum served solely as the setting of the research, rather than the planned target of its results.

Regardless of the intended audience or reaction, Abigail Hackett’s study Zigging and zooming all over the place: Young Children’s meaning making and movement in the museum has people talking. This is due in part to a shift in museum marketing in recent years, which finds the industry redefining its target audience. “There’s been a huge push for family audiences across the board,” says Elee Wood, Director of IUPUI’s Museum Studies program, “both in terms of catering to the needs of younger children … and trying to think about how to be more responsive to audiences in general.”

Courtesy of Indianapolis Museum of Art

Courtesy of Indianapolis Museum of Art

The Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA) is one such local museum that has embraced the trend of family-oriented offerings. Through Wee Wednesdays, a weekly program targeting the 2- to 4-year-olds group, the IMA combines structured activities with family exploration. The IMA also offers Art Packs, which provides children with artistic quests of varying complexity. Starting in January, the museum will offer a family day on the first Saturday of every month, which will be thematic, both in terms of the seasons and exhibitions.

“The more successful thing is when you create programs for adults that also work for kids,” says Scott Stulen, IMA’s Curator of Audience Experiences and Performances. “What you want is that the parents feel equally engaged as the kids do … but you think about different ways to engage them.”

Kyle Herrington, Director of Exhibitions at the Indianapolis Art Center agrees with Stulen’s philosophy. His approach to programming for younger audiences is less about lowering the bar and more about leveling the playing field. “Everyone who walks through our doors is an artist or an arts patron,” says Herrington. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re 3 years old or 83 years old. So, when I’m giving tours, I’m talking to them like they’re interested in the work, and I find they respond really well to that. I think that if you assume they’re not going to understand art that’s really detrimental.”

Courtesy of Indianapolis Museum of Art

Courtesy of Indianapolis Museum of Art

Stulen also warns against the assumption that kids are unable to comprehend highbrow artwork. He talks about an experience at a previous position at another museum, where he asked 6-year-olds to lead tours of one of the more complicated, contemporary art conceptual shows. “Their tours were incredibly accurate, because they don’t have any baggage,” he says. “They’re actually right, because they’re saying what they see in front of them. At times, we assume a lot of things as adults that are not necessarily true about kids.”

In the same way Herrington and Stulen are altering the discourse between art institutions and their patrons, Hackett is attempting to reinterpret the way in which child development experts analyze early forms of communication. “Focusing equally on all modes employed by young children in their communicative practices presents a challenge to the role of spoken and written language, both as the primary means of communication and as the end goal towards which other forms of communication are building,” Hackett writes. “Instead, the emphasis is on understanding the perspectives and viewpoints of the young children who are constructing these complex and creative multimodal practices.”

“Just as play activities have been recognized as a complex and meaningful combination of multiple modes, drawing on creativity, identity, and peer and family relationships to construct communicative signs,” she continues, “walking and running must not be dismissed as the ‘noise’ that happens in between focused engagement and learning in a museum.”

For her part, The Children’s Museum‘s Director of Early Childhood Education, Cathy Southerland agrees, “We [as adults] know that children have different learning styles. There are children that learn through music. There are children that learn through body movement — the kinesthetic sense. There are children that learn through auditory means. There are children that learn visually. There are children that learn through connections with nature.”

The Children’s Museum places an emphasis on family learning, with the belief that a child’s experience will be enriched by the active involvement of a parent or guardian. “Once in the exhibit, we love to see the adult or parent asking those open-ended questions,” says Southerland. “When you see something, how does it make you feel? What do you wonder? What do you want to know? Asking all those questions that elicit language, because we know this is so important for young children.”

Courtesy of Indianapolis Museum of Art

Courtesy of Indianapolis Museum of Art

Herrington echoes that sentiment, saying: “When people are taking young kids to cultural institutions, galleries, and places like that, it’s really the role and the job of the guardian to be a cultural steward for that kid to guide them through why these places are important and how we behave in a gallery.”

Wood points out that art museums are faced with the reality of protecting and preserving the, often expensive, works in their galleries. “The problem is that art museums, in particular, having people wildly cavorting through the galleries is not good for the art if something happens,” she says. “Now, that’s only if something happens, but everyone is worried that something will happen.”

For Stulen, it’s a risk he’s willing to accept. “As far as it goes, with worrying about the artwork, adults are 10 times worse than kids,” he says. “They’re so much worse about touching stuff and being a problem than kids are.”

Written by Rob Peoni

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