Advocating for our youngest visitors #TBT

Aboatsintheharbour_1020x573s we inch closer to opening our new under 5 space, Mini Mariners Play, for this #throwbackthursday post I am reminded of my favourite quote about young children as museum visitors. In 1901 the then Director of the Smithsonian, Samuel P. Langley, appointed himself Honorary Curator of the newly established Children’s Room and wrote himself a letter accepting the position. He had this to say to himself:

The Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution has been pleased to confer upon me the honorable but arduous duties of the care of the Children’s Room. He has at his service so many men learned in natural history that I do not know why he has chosen me, who knows so little about it, unless perhaps it’s because these gentlemen may possibly not also be learned in the ways of children, for whom this little room is meant.

It has been my purpose to deserve his confidence, and to carry out what I believe to be his intention, by identifying myself with the interests of my young clients. Speaking, therefore, on their behalf, and as one of them, I should say that we never have a fair chance in museums. We cannot see the things on the top shelves, which only grown-up people are tall enough to look into, and most of the things we can see and would like to know about have Latin words on them, which we cannot understand: some things we do not care for at all, and other things which look entertaining have nothing on them to tell us what they are about…

We think there is nothing in the world more entertaining than birds, animals, and live things; and next to these is our interest in the same things, even though they are not alive; and next to this is to read about them. All of us care about them and some of us hope to care for them all our lives long. We are not very much interested in the Latin names, and however much they may mean to grown-up people, we do not want to have our entertainment spoiled by being it made a lesson.

Quoted in Skramstad, H. (1999). An Agenda for American Museums in the Twenty-First Century. Daedalus, 128(3), p.113-114. This is a great article with many pertinent points made by Skramstad, particularly his comment on the above quote: “In this letter Langley largely reveals an instinctive understanding of the educational power of museums and the degree to which that that power is dependant upon museum leaders’ understanding of both their subject and their audience” (p.114, emphasis added).