I spend much of the Christmas holidays last year writing a chapter for a new book about museums, young people and education. The finished book, entitled ‘Learning to Live ‘ and published by ippr and NMDC jointly, was launched today at an extremely interesting event at the National Portrait Gallery. You can download a pdf here. The first panel was chaired by Jon Snow and speakers included Estelle Morris, Nicholas Serota, Dea Birkett, Virginia Tandy and David Anderson.
The focus of the discussion was on what some museums were already doing, that many needed to do more of, in order to engage and attract young people.
There was much agreement about the intrinsic value of learning and museums and the body of evidence that has been collected over recent years (Virginia’s work in Manchester in particular came out strongly). However the heart of the conversation lay around the widely acknowledge benefits of opening up the physical museum and gallery space to be more welcoming and to offer ways for young people to interact with what is going on. This could be by putting sofa’s in the gallery to allow kids to hang out or by getting rid of the desks in entrance halls and replacing them with meet and greet (to see how the retail world get this approach you just have to go into Jack Wills clothes store, any Saturday afternoon).
As Dea Birkett put it so nicely, “ many museums ask young people not to chat, not to sit down and not to use their mobile phones – three things that many of then find virtually impossible”.
Unsurprisingly my chapter in the book is about unlocking online opportunities which did come into the debate about half way through. When asked by ippr co-director Carey Oppenheim to say a bit more about my ideas I couldn’t help wonder what the digital equivalent was of putting sofa’s in museums for teenagers to sit on?
Maybe it is finding a way to make the museum collections comfortable within the kinds of spaces young people hang out in online? Maybe it is allowing them to pick out and take the stuff they like into their own spaces and reuse it – become the producers as well as the consumers (I first heard this phrase in the late 90’s in relation to a conference I ran at Lighthouse called ‘Catching Up with the Kids’ – see Julian Sefton-Greens book “Young People, Creativity and New Technologies: The Challenge of Digital Arts” … sometimes I do feel that the museums world are still playing catch up to the rest of the arts?)
There then followed a second panel of eight 11 to 15 year olds from London schools talking about their own particular experiences and reactions to the contact they have had with museums and galleries, both in school and with their parents.
They were a pretty articulate group who would dispel any stereotype that young people and museums don’t mix. They were very clear that what they liked was being made to feel welcome, to be able to touch and play with stuff and to have fun. Not really an unrealistic request and one that the sector is perfectly placed to respond to.
The book has a VIP launch at No10 next Monday and I hope that there is the chance to impress these messages onto those within government who could offer read leadership in this area. I shall invest in a new frock and do my best.