We spent Sunday afternoon at the University of Nottingham arts centre, mainly to visit their Elisabeth Frink exhibition but also to let E play in their superior playground. The Frink was my choice as I’m partial to sculpture.
The first thing you notice when you walk into the exhibition is an ENORMOUS horse. Frink specialised in male figures and animals, mainly, so there was a lot to engage a child with. E was very interested in the figures and trotted forward to have a closer look. We were immediately shadowed by a museum volunteer who got close enough to hear me tell E not to touch any of the figures. Once she was satisfied I had the situation in hand, she retreated. A little.
We carried on. E commented on the expressions on the faces, the animals and the few paintings on the wall all of which interested her. She crouched down next to one of them and laid her hand on the side of the wooden plinth that the 10ft statue (of a naked man) stood on. Another volunteer leaped forward. “Can you make sure your daughter doesn’t touch the art?” she said. “She’s not,” I said. “Anything, anything, she mustn’t touch anything.” she said.
I duly told E she could only touch the floor. She nodded. We went on through the rest of the exhibition. I couldn’t get her interested in anything else. With the other things – a statue of a baboon, a hog, another dog – the only thing she would say was “We can’t touch it, can we?” She didn’t talk about the faces or the animals or the pictures any more.
Now, I don’t want to be one of those parents who excuses her child’s bad behaviour and rate their experience above everyone else. I want E to be a considerate person. And I also realise the galleries have responsibilities. But she wasn’t touching the art. She was very clear on that. It was a wooden plinth. It was the side of a wooden plinth. Very close to the floor. People were bashing other plinths with their handbags. If there was a safety issue, then I’d suggest that if a three-year old could knock something down, it probably isn’t that safe.
It was just a situation that was badly handled by someone who was slightly over officious. On the whole many museums and galleries are welcoming to families. But this made me feel bad for a while afterwards, though my annoyance was then directed elsewhere when we found the facilities in the cafe weren’t working properly (there is always something wrong when we go to have a drink and snack there.)
Luckily, the gallery across the park cheered us up. It’s the gallery that the archive dept run and this month has a display of Boots No 7 products in it. Boring and out of sight for children BUT they had a colouring table where you could design your own hair and make up on a face. E’s effort looked so like David Bowie I had a glow of parental pride. They also had a dressing up box. Feather boa, 60s hats and tunics, leg warmers and deely boppers, and loads of beaded necklaces. We had a great time. It more than made up for the other side of the park.
*Or, how to engage children in museums.