TAITMAIL Museums’ plea to the young - ‘come back, we need you’

It is the practice to aim museums’ didactic at a 12-year-old schoolchild, not to dumb down but because that is the demographic that is most intellectually receptive and represents the level of attention visitors will have – carefully constructed so as to give the right information without being exhaustive. Generally a 12-year-old is interested, unbiased, questioning and is able to absorb new concepts easily.

It is also true that vital parts of a 12-year-old’s education can happen in or from museums and galleries. Or did.

But there’s an almost perfect storm brewing, says Jenny Waldman, that could affect our museums’ and children’s futures at least for a generation. A storm that means young people being excluded from their heritage.

This week, as director of the Art Fund, she launched Energising Young Minds, a campaign to raise £1m that will help museums across the country to restart their programmes for young people – and not just schoolchildren but anyone under 24. To kick it off the Art Fund is bunging in £500,000.

“During lockdown school trips to museums and galleries were not possible - and it’s not clear that these will resume at previous levels” Waldman said on Monday. “Meanwhile cash strapped cultural institutions have had to make difficult decisions that have often had an impact on learning teams.

“We cannot allow cultural poverty for kids and must act now to help young people, those with least access to experiencing the arts, have opportunities to enjoy all that the UK’s museums can offer.”

She and her board of trustees have been spurred by some particularly worrying statistics. The fund’s own research this year has shown that two-thirds of its partner museums and galleries believe engaging with under-24s is one of the most urgent post-pandemic priorities, that engaging with wider audiences is critical if they are to survive. A third of museums “have no published offer” for schools and young people, while universal belt-tightening means youth programmes are being chopped and redundancies in museums’ learning and engagement departments are widespread.

The £1m from the private citizenry, if they raise it, won’t go far by itself, but it will be the lever for as many institutions as possible to prise more funding from elsewhere, even local authorities bless them, because nothing happens in the arts these days without partnerships. The Art Fund imprimatur will be critical. The government’s would be even more so - where is it?

There’s no doubt that the Culture Recovery Fund, which has been worth nearly £2bn, has been vital in preventing museums from closing, but although there have been the odd specific nods – in last week’s announcement of another £300m worth of grants from the CRF there was £218,000 for the Norfolk Museums Service to “continue to inspire children and young people with its creative and engaging collections” and £35,000 for the Little Inventors education workshops for disadvantaged kids - it’s focus has been on physically getting venues open and staying open. “Applicants can apply for grants of between £10,000 and £1million to cover core operating costs up to a point where they can demonstrate a return to financial viability” is the blunt guidance on the DCMS website. We need a specific funding commitment to museums’ education programmes from the department or the DfE.

Up to 25 years or so ago young people were barely tolerated in museums, where nothing but reverent silence in front of the art was tolerated, a situation which led to the birth of the Kids in Museums charity set up by the journalist Dea Birkett after her four-year-old was expelled from the Royal Academy for being noisy. By then David Anderson at the V&A had devised a proper education programme with schools that not only offered curriculum as well as child friendly courses but defrosted the attitude, so that galleries became youth friendly at long last and teachers learned to exploit museums as hitherto unsuspected rich education resources. That was copied up and down the country.

But the bleak prospect of museums having to turn their focus away from the young to concentrate on money-making is alarming. Andria Zafirakou is an arts and textiles teacher in a London community school who became a celebrity in 2018 when she won the $1m Global Teacher Prize (given by an American charity). She cherishes memories of inspiring school visits when she was a child in the 1990s. “Igniting interest in museums and galleries at school can have lasting and sometimes life-changing benefit” she says. “It’s important that all children have access to what’s on offer, and that means making it easier on slim resources to plan visits, making sure information is readily available, and giving museums the means to make the most of their wonderful collections for this crucial audience.”

And the author and broadcaster Lemn Sissay, who features in a campaign video for the fund, says he sees museums as time machines in that they hold the past and predict the future. “We need to connect with all young people right now” he says. “If not the museum and gallery experience will not enrich their adult lives”.

So the Art Fund has garnered testaments from a few key figures to encourage us to contribute, including the director of what you might think is the ultimate in the kids’ genre,  the Foundling Museum whose 300 year history she says is powerful proof of the role that the arts play in transforming profoundly disadvantaged young lives. “Culture cannot be the preserve of those who are lucky enough to have access to it - it is a human right” Caro Howell goes on. “We must do all we can to ensure that every young person can claim it for themselves.”

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