Four ways art museums can make families feel welcome

View of Galeries des Enfants from the lobby entrance at Centre Pompidou
View of Galerie des Enfants from the lobby at Centre Pompidou (Image from Studio GGSV)
Kids and art museums. In most museums, they do not go hand and hand. Museums make claims that they are friendly towards families. They offer a kids tour once a month or themed activity day. They do little to change the museum visiting experience. Picture a visit to an art museum. It is quiet, filled with expensive art that hangs at forehead level for a child, and no touching. If there is an area for kids, the activities are often for older children, and museum rules still apply in that area. It is nice to engage these children but the little ones, the kids that are loud and want to touch, need a place too.
A few museums are doing an excellent job of creating space for families. It is possible for every museum to join them and it does not have to be a pricey, overthought initiative. Here are four ways a museum can make itself more welcoming to families.
First, every museum, if they want to attract families, needs a place for mothers to breastfeed. It doesn’t have to be fancy. Create a nursing corner. Take a corner of a room, add some privacy curtains, a chair, a power strip, and a few books or kids toys. Adding a changing table or pad to the area is also a plus.
A place for baby to eat leads to the next step. Every museum needs a changing station in the bathroom. Changing a baby on a cold, museum bathroom floor is not fun, and it makes the family feel unwelcome. Koala Kare produces stations that are mountable in a stall and are around $200. A small investment that makes families feel welcome.
The third is child interaction training for gallery attendants and security guards. I didn’t take my son to the art museum until he was six because I was afraid someone would say something harsh to him. I worried he would not see the museum as a welcoming place. Why did I have this fear? I’m a docent at an art museum, and I have seen the museum’s attendants and guards shame, threaten, and sneer at kids. They aren’t doing it to be cruel, they are protecting the art, but a majority of them don’t know how to talk to children. They instill fear in their discipline techniques, but they also do harm. Last week I was helping out at an event with about seventy-five third graders. A student was a little too close to the art and an attendant, from the corner, shouted at him to step back. I went over and walked with the student around the exhibit. While walking, he saw a guard watching us, and he said to me, “The guard yelled at me because he knows what school I’m from, so he thinks I’m a bad kid.” I had no idea what school the kid was from so I am sure the attendant hadn’t made a value judgment. Even so, the student took in the message that he did not belong at the museum.
A feel simple lessons could help. First, avoid the don’ts. For example, if a child is running in the museum, one might say “Don’t run!” An attendant could say, “We use walking feet in the museum.” Second, If a child is getting to close to a piece of art or is looking like she may want to touch it, don’t shame her. You could say, “We give our art its personal space in our museum. Stand back the length of my arm,” or, “I can see that you want to touch the art. What do you think it would feel like?” Kids are growing up in a world where fingers interact daily with screens. Why are we surprised that they reach out to touch? We can redirect their touch. One success is having please-touch stations near pieces that are extra-sensory stimulating. Children (and adults) can get out their need to touch.
The last lesson for interacting with children is to use open posture. It is ok for a guard to smile at a child. If an attendant is speaking to a child, she should bend down, so she is at the child’s level. The art’s safety is number one, but it is also important that families feel welcome in these spaces. Closed posture and frustrated expressions from the museum’s staff make families feel unwelcome. The more anxiety that is in a room, the more likely a child is to misbehave.
The last way is to create a space for families. It can be educational, but it doesn’t need to be. If it is a small room with a pile of Magna-tiles, a pack of colored pencils, a stack of paper, and a few books, a family is happy. The place needs to have furniture that kids can climb on. Everything must be touchable, and the kids can talk at kid-level. Families need a break area. Museums can take a long time to visit, and kids need a place to work out their wiggles.
My family spends a longer time at museums when these places exist. I spent seven hours at the Centre Pompidou because of their family area. My partner and I took turns being with the kids in the family area, allowing us time to explore the museum on our own. We also took the kids through exhibits, allowing them a play break between each gallery. They were much more enjoyable to be with inside the museum because of the family area. It is a drag for a parent to have to direct their attention to their kid and not the art in a gallery. No one wants to be saying, “Don’t touch that, leave your sister alone,” while passing masterpieces. When kids are happy, and making space for them at a museum makes them happy, they whine a lot less.
The other plus side for the museum is revenue. We spent more money at the Centre Pompidou than any other museum we have been to as a family. We could take turns going to the gift shop (kid-free shopping!) and we ate three times in their various cafeterias and restaurants.
Here are the museums that I have found that are working to make their spaces welcoming to families. If you have a museum to add, let me know in the comments, and I will add it to my list.

Centre Pompidou

Galerie des enfants at Centre Pompidou
Galerie des Enfants at Centre Pompidou (Image from Centre Pompidou)

Contemporary Jewish Museum

Zim Zoom Family Room at the Jewish Contemporary Art Museum
Zim Zoom Family Room at the Jewish Contemporary Art Museum (Image from the Jewish Contemporary Art Museum)

Dunedin Public Art

Family area at the Dunedin Public Art Museum
Family area at the Dunedin Public Art Museum

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