Friday, 3 June 2016

Keeping Albert Happy

Recently my wife and I went to a tourist attraction in Hampshire. We were looking forward to it, it was a quiet day and all was well with the world. 
Then at the ticket office we bumped into Albert and his parents. Now Albert is not his real name, we will protect the innocent here, but he was a young lad, probably about eight years old and an only child. The member of staff on admissions said he'd enjoy the museum  as there were pirates in there, to which Albert looked interested and his parents immediately gave great exaggerated whoops and bending into his face said "How exciting Albert, pirates!"; they also took the child activity trail they were offered.
Now, from experience museum trails can vary considerably in quality and interest but as we had no view of this one we were not going to judge. But Albert was not looking very exited at the prospect of filling in an activity sheet with his amazingly enthusiastic and constantly whooping parents who seemed to think it was essential that each whoop and exclamation of some new found fact should be communicated to Albert, even though he was quite a considerable way away at the other end of the room. It was also part of the enthusiastic whooping that the parents should make every effort to catch our eyes (the only other people in the room) to ensure that they were seen to be educating their child. 
For Jo and I this became excruciating, intrusive and very annoying as we tried to read and take in the information panels. We are all for young children coming to museums, it has been strongly encouraged in our families, but all we could hear were comments such as "Albert! Albert! Come and find three different types of wood!". At this particular point Albert was quite engrossed with a model of a ship and obviously wanted to know more about that with his pointing and asking, rather than looking for three different bits of wood but to no avail - the activity sheet had to be completed.
And so it continued to the point that Jo and I made the decision that this parental noise cloud following us around was too much, so we left the museum to come back later. We spent the next hour plotting a course around the attraction maintaining the maximum distance from Albert's parents.
Because actually it was the parents and not the child causing the problem. It was them not understanding their child's interests and natural discovery of exhibits that was causing the issue, by trying to force him to learn in the way a museum's kids trail had decided. They wanted him to do the children's trail whereas he obviously wanted to find out things in his own way. He was interested in the models and dioramas and his parents would have been better off looking at these with him instead of trying to answer all the questions on an A4 piece of paper.
Many "Children's' Trails" I have experienced are actually quite poor and only designed probably to say there is something to do for children rather than being designed for children. Albert may have been a problem child or just wilful but the parents were not allowing him to find his own level of interest and were spending a great deal of (loud) energy bending him to the fact that the approach they had adopted was the only way to do it (and making sure all around them were seeing that they were "good parents" in doing so).
What can those of us working in Heritage and Tourism learn from this? 
Firstly, try your children's' trail on some real children to see if they find it engaging. Don't make the assumption that what you find interesting or what the message of the museum is will appeal to an ordinary young visitor.
Secondly, adult exhibits and interpretation can stimulate the interest of children, but it is probably better to add in a layer of simpler interpretation for younger visitors to engage with rather than filling in a separate piece of paper that smacks more of school learning than holidays.
Not all child activity trails are poor, but many seem to miss the mark.
We last saw Albert slowly walking back to the car park with two slightly deflated and silent parents. They had given up on the trip. We were glad that our visit was now more peaceful but couldn't help having a little sympathy for Albert, whose growing interest in some exhibits had not been noticed and no doubt he would be going through very similar defined learning exercises again in the future. 

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