The publication of a photograph of a boy climbing a valuable steel sculpture, while his parents look on unconcerned, has prompted debate about children in public museums. This debate has been going on for years within the art community. On one side, there are traditionalists (conservators, artists and avid gallery-goers) who object to the noise and disruption caused by children and worry about damage to fragile objects. Opposing them are progressives: education officers, teachers and parents, who argue that art enhances the lives of children and that traditionalists should stop being restrictive and join the modern world. In a newspaper discussion, writer and broadcaster Dea Birkett calls opponents of this progressive outlook ‘slow head nodders and chin scratchers’.
Firstly, let’s set aside this specific case. The damage here seems to have been minimal, though any physical interaction with art can be potentially catastrophic (to artwork and person). This is only one example of a widespread problem. Progressive education ideas, such as the emphasis on first-hand interaction, combined with the more child-friendly approach adopted by many museums, have encouraged parents to bring young children to galleries.
The push by museums to increase attendance is not purely a matter of progressive beliefs. It is a matter of finance. Museums in the UK rely on Arts Council funding and raising attendance is an implicit condition for securing public subsidies. (In the USA, the Frick Collection – an independent foundation – bans entry to children under 10.) The arts are, according to the Arts Council, ‘every child’s birthright. It is vital children engage with the arts early in their lives.’ Parties of schoolchildren are an easy way of bumping up attendance figures, regardless of the detraction to the viewing experience that these groups cause.
As museums become more welcoming, it can be hard for people to recognise and understand that rules are still needed to protect art. For example, touching sculpture and paintings causes damage, and some art should not be photographed due to copyright and conservation reasons. Rules on photography are enforced irregularly. The free-for-all that results when busy museums do not enforce them is dismaying. Tourists pose next to Van Goghs to have their snapshots taken. People wander around galleries photographing each painting for personal reference, disturbing other visitors. This is despite images being accessible on museum websites or in books.
Many people do not realise that their behaviour is distracting and selfish. In galleries, I have seen adults touching sculpture and paintings, talking loudly on phones, sitting on fragile exhibits, leaving footprints on plinths, leaning against period wallpaper, and drinking liquids. Children notice such behaviour.