Do we need Kids in Museums? – The Family Friendly Museum Award 2014

Aquarium at the Horniman Museum
The kids are alright – Aquarium at the Horniman Museum

Kids in Museums, they are everywhere now, right? Can’t escape them can you? Not just museums either these days, art galleries too, can’t take two steps towards a Monet or a Renoir without tripping over some small child’s torso sprawled on the floor. You can’t walk from the beginning of one gallery to the next without bumping into some intrepid family working through their family friendly trail or sit for a minute without seeing some small child run past, iPhone or iPad in hand, technology at the forefront of a self led trail of discovery and entertainment, learning and fun meshing together at the cutting edge of our museums of the here and now.

Kids trail at Two Temple Place for Discoveries exhibition
Kids trail at Two Temple Place for Discoveries exhibition

Look at any museum or gallery website, two clicks will take you to a massive and varied list of ‘family’ events. Programmes no longer restricted to half-term and summer holidays for parents desperate to entertain bored children but events running every saturday, clubs after school, and sunday mornings. In fact scratch that, some museums run family activities every day, imagine! You can rock up any time with your brood in tow and help yourself to an explorer back pack or revel in toddler story time.

Explorer bag Museum of London Docklands
Explorer bag Museum of London Docklands

Who needs to even wait until your children become toddlers? No need to delay until those precious first steps are completed, you can take your baby to special museum and gallery sessions now, actors and artists will enchant your newborns with song and engage them with colours and sensory collections. There is no denying kids are entrenched in every museum and gallery across the country from the smallest local volunteer run history houses to the large national must see visitor attractions.

In fact it is not even all about the kids these days, it is all about the families, whatever shape and size they come in. Grandparents, aunts and uncles, big sisters and step-brothers, family fun and family learning are the goals. It is no longer about taking little Johnny or Jemima along to the local museum and ignoring them whilst they make a mask or paint a picture. It is about dressing up as a family, laughing and learning together, spending time in each other’s company, feeling welcome and happy in a supportive environment.

Family fun - Everyone enjoying making a human skeleton - Dorset County Museum
Family fun – Everyone enjoying making a human skeleton – Dorset County Museum

These programmes are so successful now too, sold out, booked up, not a space left, got to get in early, got to get your name down first. In fact they are so successful, they don’t really need to change a thing, simply bask in the success of record visitor numbers and booked out sessions. What a long way we have come in the eleven years since the independent charity Kids in Museums was founded by Dea Birkett after she was expelled from the Royal Academy because her 2 year old son shouted ‘Monster, Monster’ at the statue of an Eagle Man. In fact do we even need this charity? This advocate of children in museums, when they have done their job, and families are welcome in museums up and down the country?

But here is my truth and why I have written this post. I need ‘Kids in Museums’, I need them and I need their ‘Family Friendly Museum Award‘ too. Because my family are rarely in museums, my family rarely feel supported and accepted, my family struggle to visit, my family feel excluded, my family is autism. It is not always intentional, it is often just ignorance, the barriers are sometimes so far outside the museum, they begin on my own doorstep, and who can expect a museum to break down barriers that don’t even exist within their museum walls?

This year for the first time I voted for a museum in the Family Friendly Museum Award, this year for the first time I had a museum I wanted to shout about from the roof tops, my husband voted too, this vote was not just about me, this vote was a family thing. We voted for the Science Museum, we voted for them because we have been and enjoyed their Early Birds autism friendly mornings. They open up early at 8.30am, restrict the numbers, provide a visual story and support for parents. They keep some galleries open exclusively for Early Birds till 11.15 even after the museum opens up to the public at 10am.  This was the first time we had visited the museum together, the first time all three of my children had been there and we were not the only family taking their first trip to the Science Museum.

When I heard the Science Museum had got through the first round of voting to be long listed I was thrilled, I was over the moon. The Science Museum is already a successful, busy, thriving museum, their family events are fully booked, but that is still not enough for them, they have realised they need to reach out to families like mine who are not part of that successful thriving community.

Welcome to the Science Museum
Welcome to the Science Museum

On an Early Birds session the museum welcomes around 100 families, the dates of the sessions vary but they run around 4 sessions a year and they have 700 families on their contact list. 700 families needing a little bit of extra support, 700 families feeling excluded, 700 families that need to be reached and they are just the tip of the iceberg. Autism affects  around 700,000 people in the UK, if you include their families, autism touches the lives of 2.7 million people every day.So I need the Science Museum to keep doing what they are doing and not worrying about what they already do well, but look to what they could do even better.  I need Kids in Museums too, I looked at their website, I looked at the mission statement to see what they are really all about, I have taken a section word for word and put it below.

“Kids in Museums is an independent charity dedicated to making museums open and welcoming to all families, in particular those who haven’t visited before.”

When I read that sentence it is the last bit that gets my attention – ” in particular those who haven’t visited before”, this is the important bit, this is the bit that counts. Kids are already in museums, they rush around every gallery, paint and stick, dress up and play, they learn and have fun every day of the week, but that is not enough. Museums have to look to those who don’t visit, for whatever reason that may be, they have to engage and reach out far beyond their walls. They have to really open up their doors, not sit back on their successful family programmes without trying to do even better.

I am so excited that the Science Museum has made the Kids in Museums long list, but I need them to make the short list and I need them to win, because we have to shine a light on a desperate need. Every step they make in the Family Friendly Museum Award process shows other museums the way and amplifies the need of those 700 families sitting on the contact list again and again. Those 700 families are sitting and waiting for the next autism friendly session so they can take a trip to the museum, Kids in Museums can help make sure that the wait won’t be too long.

A day out, a trip to a museum, awareness, understanding, support, it really isn’t a lot to ask. When it happens, when a museum puts in place these things, they let my children be children, they let us enjoy ourselves as a family, they simply make us feel welcome and wanted. So I wait and wait for the 27th July when the short list is announced because there is a lot at stake and this family’s nomination means so much because it has to make a difference.

My family at the Science Museum
My family at the Science Museum

 

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1. National Autistic Society – Autism and Asperger Syndrome some facts and statistics – http://www.autism.org.uk/about-autism/myths-facts-and-statistics/some-facts-and-statistics.aspx Accessed 4th July 2014

5 comments

  1. A heartfelt plea – totally agree that museums need to do more with their family programmes. So glad to hear the Science Museum are getting it right for all types of family.

  2. Thanks for your blog. I’d value a chat on the phone sometime – keen that Arts Council supports.

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