You know when you are sitting there in a conference or a lecture, lots of people all around you, some you know, some you don’t. You really want to ask a question, raise a point, put your view across. Sometimes the nerves get the better of you, will anyone think your point is valid? Is what you have to say of any value? Sometimes your chance just doesn’t come, they run out of time, the session ends, opportunity gone. Then you get those days where you do it, put you hand up, say your piece, you are glad you did it, proud of yourself. Then something really good comes out of it and it was all worth it. That was me, at the British Museum “Museum of the Future Debate” on digital technology and engagement in museums, I stuck my hand up and made my point (1 hr 17 mins in, if you are interested in autism and tech – you can listen here). At the end of the debate the lady next to me introduced herself, she was from Tate Kids and was really interested in what I had said, and wondered if we would like to get involved with the development of digital interaction for kids at the Tate.
Next thing I know we get an invite to take over the Tate Kids (@tate_kids) Twitter feed for the day on Friday 21 November in conjunction with Takeover Day 2014 and Kids in Museums. Kids in Museums are a charity that run this yearly event to encourage museums and galleries to give meaningful and powerful decision-making roles that are usually reserved for adults, to children. Front of house, behind the scenes, it is about interaction and involvement on a whole new level. Kids learn loads, feel important and have fun, whilst museums get to understand what really makes kids tick when they visit a museum. What do they enjoy? What are they interested in? The benefits are mutual, long-lasting and ultimately good fun.
With this in mind I was obviously hugely excited that my 3 kids where getting an opportunity to take part. My eldest is 10 years old, I then have a 7-year-old and the youngest is 4. My initial concerns were over my eldest daughter, who has autism. I was a bit worried how she would cope, but as we have been to the Tate Modern before I was encouraged that it would not be a totally new environment for her. Familiarity helps cut down on the anxiety that often stops her taking part in activities. With technology also involved and the chance to ‘ Tweet like Mummy’ would also help her bypass some of that anxiety. I also had a few doubts about taking my youngest as coping with all three and ensuring no-one tweeted anything inappropriate might take more than one pair of hands. Luckily my husband was more than happy to take part, so we decided to give it a go with all the kids.
The Friday in question was in school time, but I was able to take the kids out of school as they happily classed it as an educational visit. The fact it was happening during school hours also meant it would be a bit quieter than a weekend, also a bonus for us, as crowds and busy places can cause problems for my daughter. Kat Box (Tate Kids Producer) sent us some online resources to have a play with before the day and we checked out some of the artists on the Tate Kids website. My eldest had just completed a project on Jeff Koons (he of the balloon dogs) so we had been looking at a lot of artists recently and this really tied in nicely to the work she had been doing.
We arrived on the day, fuelled by coffee (us) and biscuits (them), we began the day sitting on the floor in the turbine hall surrounded by goodie bags full of Tate resources, maps, badges, pens and items to use in the galleries. We were handed the password to the Tate Kids twitter account, the only guidelines were to check our spelling! It gave us (mainly me) a sense of power to hold the virtual keys to Tate Kids in my hands but I resisted the urged to tweet anything inappropriate.
Initially the eldest did a bit of tweeting but it rapidly became apparent it was too difficult to keep everyone together (with a 4 yr old running off in all directions) and wait for her to tweet as it took her a little longer to do it. She doesn’t own a phone (thank goodness) at the moment so enjoyed sending a few tweets but was quite happy to let me tweet her thoughts. I followed them round tweeting their thoughts, luckily you don’t really need to give kids any encouragement to say what they think.
It was incredibly hard to keep up with them, my phone was low on battery but I had Vine on it to record some video clips. At one point I was using two phones with an audio guide round my neck as well, I looked like the worst selfie-obsessed parent in the world. I spent most of the time looking at the phone and not my kids, everything I don’t want to be in a gallery.
I think I did ask my kids what they thought about the different artworks more than I would normally, and I also asked them more questions and got them to engage with the art by copying statues and mirroring stances. The eldest really loved the interaction on Twitter from outsiders, she loved answering the questions – I thing it made her feel like her opinion mattered and her thoughts were being listened to.
The Vine videos took the interaction to a new level and were great fun to do. More than any other art gallery the Tate Modern is all about the physical space, and in many respects is perfect for kids as there is lots of space to run up and down and let off steam without causing too much commotion. The tricky part is when the kids then see the art as an extension of that playful environment and want to climb on statues.
One of the reasons it was important to me to get involved with Takeover Day at the Tate is that I find art galleries are not high up my list of places to visit with the kids. They are young, they make noise, they run about, not always a great combination with the hushed tones of sacred art appreciation that happen in the hallowed halls of major galleries. I joke but it is more than this. I have taken my daughter to the National Portrait Gallery to look at pictures of Henry VIII, we talked about historical events, costumes and styles. Modern art is different, it is tricky to explain. The first gallery we walked into my middle daughter saw two impaled, stuffed birds on the wall by Jannis Kounellis – she is a great animal lover and this upset her a bit. I wasn’t really sure how to explain why they were displayed like that. A few weeks before, I had taken her to the Museum of London, she was studying the Great Fire of London. We looked at a fire bucket, easy to explain, what it is made from, what it was used for, job done. Modern art is… as I said….tricky.
I have noticed when I say I am going to the Tate Modern, people often respond with “Oh, I don’t ‘do’ modern art”. There is this misapprehension that you have to like it and understand it to visit it. But watching my kids you quickly realised it is not the same for them, often it is just a visual interaction, do they have to like it? do they have to understand it? What my daughter actually enjoyed was the audio-visual guide were you could see a painting actually being made. That opened her eyes to the process and not just the finished artefact.
In particular I remember when we came across a sculpture in one of the galleries and the 4-year-old quickly noticed there was a shoe in it. He was quite mesmerised, an everyday object not in a place he expected it to be. The 10-year-old stopped too, “I don’t think that is supposed to be there” she said. It was a lovely moment because it made them stop and think, about objects, where we expect to see them, what happens when they are in the wrong place. What does that mean? Is it an accident? Has someone left it there on purpose? I didn’t have to explain anything (luckily, because I wasn’t sure how to!) I just let them take the lead. Sometimes it is important to keep quiet, if I had walked up and said “Oh that is rubbish” they would have taken on the negative connotations of what I had said. Sometimes it is better to let them come to fresh and make up their minds about what it means.
I have thought a lot about the day and discussed it with my husband, although we have been to the Tate Modern before, we felt more relaxed on this visit because we had been explicitly invited, I didn’t mind videoing the kids in front of artwork and taking lots of pictures because we had a legitimate reason for doing so. It is silly, we have as much right to be there as anyone else but when you have young kids you don’t always feel that welcome, it is not always about staff but often other visitors.
Really that is why I love Takeover Day, because everyone benefits. It is so, so important. We may have been one family, but the kids told all their friends at school, we got great Twitter coverage and the Tate Kids Twitter feed got lots more followers. The Vine video of the kids mirroring Giacommetti has played around 2,900 times. We learnt a lot, the kids learnt a lot too, they had a new sense of involvement and control.. Takeover Day can be about 1 child, running a hands on desk, welcoming visitors or taking over a Twitter account. When you can start this small I can’t see why every museum or gallery can’t invite at least one child to takeover something. If you are worried about taking on whole classes and hoards of kids why not just start with 1. I guarantee it will be such a success, so much benefit to everyone involved you will quickly be planning bigger and better things the following year.
Lastly a plea from me, perhaps what we also need is a Family Takeover Day too. Sometimes it is about making the Mums and Dads, the Grandparents, Aunts and Uncles feel as welcome as the kids. Museum education and fun has been family based for a long time now. It is about interacting as a family, learning as an inclusive, immersive experience for all. I think we got as much out of it as the kids did. Being explicitly invited to take part also gave us a sense of empowerment.
So for Takeover Day 2015 make sure you are involved. Jump at it and grab it with both hands. Ask your local museum if they are taking part and if not why not. If every museum invites at least one child and makes that first step, we are on to something very special. If you are feeling brave, you might even invite the whole family to take part too.
You can view the tweets from out Tate Kids Takeover Day 2014 on my Storify here – https://storify.com/Tinctureofmuse/tate-kids-kids-in-museums-takeover-day-2014