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  • Writer's pictureSophie Fox

Babies in Museums

Updated: Nov 9, 2021

Nicola Wallis, early years specialist from The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, started the Magic Acorns Network session by offering some questions as provocations to challenge our assumptions about babies in museums.

Nicola suggested that we need to value babies not just as citizens of the future but value them as they are now.

Generally it might be said that babies can't appreciate museums - but, Nicola asked "what do we mean by appreciation? what kinds of experiences count as appreciation? "

Perhaps opening ourselves up to other approaches, babies can show us different ways of experiencing and appreciating museums.

Nicola invited us to bring an awareness to our reliance on words in museums and galleries by noticing the ways we invite people to engage with objects in our collections. Generally, she said, museums encourage people to engage with collections through written labels, through talks, through storytelling, however, the objects in these collections are physical things - they were held, carried, felt, they have been shaped by bodies - not by words.

Engaging with objects through sensory exploration, with materials and through play, is no less than engaging with the collection through words. Babies might open up our thinking to this, we are missing out on the potential of sensory learning that babies and older people do, including the social aspects of learning, if we only value the cognitive learning that is dominated by words.

Nicola also encouraged us to think about the practical aspects of welcoming babies into museums - she said "it is a question, not just of facilities but of attitude." This shift could also benefit our broader audiences, and she asked us "what does it say about our views of certain visitors if all we are doing is meeting their basic needs? Does that make us accessible?"

We need to see babies as people.

If we are shaping these institutions by people participating in them, and if we believe museums are for people, we need to see babies as people who can make a contribution to these spaces, and that we can learn from their encounters.

"Engaging, informative, communal, collegiate, supportive, interesting, thought provoking"

Acorn Network participant feedback

Play Studio: exploring charcoal. Image Credit: Lucy Turner.

Lucy Turner and Annabel Newfield who run the PLAY LIVE online sessions and the early years delivery at The Whitworth Gallery in Manchester also shared with us some of their award winning approaches to working with babies and very young children.

The whole programme at The Whitworth gallery is steeped in play - from babies to adults. They offer open-ended, non-prescriptive, child-led play, and draw on Reggio Emilia approaches, making use of a light and airy studio space that is part of the gallery. They set up environments or invitations to play, and the sessions run all day as a drop in, making it possible for families to come for 10 minutes or to stay for the whole day. By exploring particular materials and themes like light, shadow, marks, colours they create opportunities for discovery and connection through creative play. Children can go at their own pace, make their own play and come up with new things and responses that aren't limited by an adult's ideas.

Lucy and Annabel really value babies participation at Play Studio, acknowledging that children have an appreciation of aesthetics and that they have and can show their own preferences. Lucy suggests that rather than dumbing down for babies we need to value the babies as artists themselves.

Annabel led a short taster session for us, inviting us to be in our bodies as creative beings, and to try to enter into a playful state that might encourage us to explore more freely. She said "Everyone's got a body. Movement is an invitation to get into our bodies " - We can get stuck in our heads and movement can invite us into other forms of creative expression.

As always with the Network Meetings there was time to discuss and connect with the fellow participants (it never feels like enough time though!) There was a lively and respectful discussion - with people from other museums and galleries, early childhood educators, and arts specialists - all sharing ideas, perspectives and responses to the thought-provoking presentations.


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