DEA BIRKETT Fifteen years ago, a museum visit changed my life

Last week we reported on the reopening of the V&A’s Cast Courts. Here, Dea Birkett recounts her own especial memory of them

It happened just a few days after I’d been to the Aztec exhibition at the Royal Academy – billed as the biggest blockbuster to come to London since Tutankhamen.

It was indeed a remarkable exhibition, although it wasn’t its mosaic masks nor glittering gold objects that had a profound effect on me. But my youngest, then aged two and safely strapped in his pushchair, was very excited by the extraordinary collection. He shouted “Monster!” at a statue of Eagleman who looked rather like, well …. a monster. As I bent down to congratulate him on an very early appreciation of pre-Hispanic art, a gallery assistant came up to us and asked us to leave. We were, she said, being too noisy. I scuttled out in disgrace, the pushchair and screaming son before me.

But they threw out the wrong family. I was a Guardian journalist and two days later wrote an article about our unfortunate experience. It went, in the language of 15 years later, viral. Hundreds of families contacted us demanding something be done about museums. They were fed up of being treated as interlopers and wanted museums to work with and for them. It was a depressing postbag bulging with tales of being made to feel uncomfortable, chided, and even expelled. Was this really the everyday experience of families in museums?

I decided to venture into another august cultural institution to see if the same son would get us in trouble. We went to the V&A in South Kensington and strolled amongst the marble wonders. In the Cast Courts, I held up my hand to the colossal carved foot of Michelangelo’s David.

“Look” I said to my son. “Giant toes!”

‘No big toes,’ he replied, pointing higher up. ‘Big willy!’ 

I shuddered. If “Monster!” got us thrown out, what would “Willy!”do?

The gallery assistant approached us. I flinched. Then he bent down and said to my son, “You seem to be enjoying yourself”, and went off back to his station. I strode with joy through the V&A’s long corridors, pushing my son in front of me. Every time he saw a naked statue he pointed and shouted, “Big willy!” He counted 13 in all.

Within a few months, we had founded Kids in Museums, a charity working with and for all families to ensure they were better welcomed and included in museums, now an Arts Council National Portfolio Organisation. But it wasn’t our expulsion from the Royal Academy that was the impetus behind the charity’s creation. It was the welcome at the V&A. Without hope, it’s not possible to agitate for change. That one small, welcoming, understanding incident gave that hope. It let us know that things could, with effort and commitment, be different.

Last week the Cast Courts re-emerged after a splendid restoration. David stands polished and proud, his fig leaf still tucked behind, instead of in front of, him. At the Courts’ opening, V&A Director Tristram Hunt reminded us of the museum’s founding mission to educate, and particularly young people. Of all the rooms in that grand and mighty building, the unlikely Casts Court has fulfilled that mission the most



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