As part of our ongoing exploration of Indigenous art in the Preschool Room, we took a group of nine Preschool Children to the National Gallery of Australia to view some of the Indigenous exhibits. When I initially planned on documenting our experience, I had a vision of an easy to read story about a pleasant day at the gallery. However, the experience we ended up having at the National Gallery wasn’t exactly what I had anticipated, and I would like to give an honest recap about our experience.
When we arrived at the National Gallery we were approached by a member of staff almost immediately. Rather than welcoming us into the gallery, she immediately instructed us we were not able to bring our large bag in with us. We understood that this was gallery protocol, but we also explained that all it contained was the clipboards and pencils that the children would be using once inside.
We were then told that pencils were not permitted inside the gallery. After questioning her comment about not allowing pencils in the gallery and giving assurance that the children would be supervised, she reluctantly allowed us to enter the gallery.
As we began to move through the gallery, one staff member came almost running over when she saw the group of children walk into the room. “They cannot run in here!” she exclaimed, as she gestured at the group of children who were calmly walking through the room. If she had taken one moment, a few seconds, to actually watch how the children were conducting themselves, she may have realised that that comment wasn’t necessary.
One child even looked at me, confused, and said, “But we aren’t running?”
For children who are used to being trusted by adults and being treated as responsible, capable people, when they are suddenly treated as untrustworthy and incapable, they often don’t know how to respond. And in this moment, the children definitely didn’t know how to respond.
This group of children who entered the gallery excited and confident, all of a sudden seemed a little nervous and on-edge. I, myself, felt a little nervous and on-edge.
The other educators and I tried to plaster on smiles to help the children feel more at ease, as we continued to make our way through the exhibit. One child excitedly pointed out a painting which they recognised as one of the ones they drew at Treehouse. We were all pretty excited about this, and we suggested that the three children who had drawn the painting stand in front of it for a photo.
As they stood there against the wall, in front of the painting that was above their heads, another staff member approached. “They have to move forward. They cannot stand there. They must move forward” he said abruptly. The children jumped forward urgently as if they had been caught doing something wrong. And of course they felt that way; they were given no explanation as to why he wanted them to move, nor were they asked nicely, he didn’t even address them directly. Not to mention it was a little unnecessary as the painting was up above their heads and in no danger of being damaged.
By this point we were all feeling pretty disheartened. We made our way through to a huge room with some absolutely stunning artworks and a bench right in the middle. The children all sat down on the bench with their clipboards and pencils and quietly began to draw. We soon realised that a member of staff had followed us into the room and stood at the door watching us, walkie talkie in hand. Unfortunately, this sort of treatment continued in every room we walked through.
When we had finished all our drawing we decided it was best that we just leave the gallery, but we thought it would be special for the children to walk through the totems in the Aboriginal Memorial before we left. Conscious of the staff member watching us, we decided that each educator would walk three children down the path at a time.
As I walked with three children through the memorial, I was approached by yet another staff member who insisted that the children not throw any rocks that were on the ground of the memorial. The children that he was referring to were calmly walking through the memorial, just taking in the stunning totems.
Experiences like this really cause us to question how children are viewed and positioned in society. Was it having pencils in the gallery that was really the problem? Or was it the age of the people who were going to be using them? It is important to note that there were several school groups of about 40-50 primary and high school children at the gallery that day. Were they questioned about their writing materials on arrival too? Or is it just young children that many people in society still view as incapable and untrustworthy?
This experience has made me reflect on not only how children are viewed and positioned in society, but also how children are viewed and positioned here at Treehouse. The children at Treehouse are accustomed to being trusted by adults, who believe that they are responsible and capable young people. So when they were suddenly treated otherwise, they noticed.
Whilst we were moving through the gallery, one child came and took my hand and said “There are a lot more rules here then there are at Treehouse”.
I understand that it is the job of the gallery staff to ensure the artwork is respected and is not damaged, and I understand that the gallery has rules and protocol. What I do not understand however is how they could not see how this group of children, despite their young age, were behaving in the exact same manner as the adults accompanying them.
If they had taken just one moment to actually observe the children and what they were doing, rather than jumping to conclusions, maybe they would have realised that their instructions not to run, not to throw rocks, not to touch anything, were not necessary. And even if they were, isn’t there a more respectful way to address it?
The positive side of this was of course the children. Despite not having the warmest welcome, the children were engaged, eager to learn and excited to explore the incredible artworks. They were respectful, patient, polite and extremely tolerant despite the way they were being treated. I am so incredibly and deeply proud of them. But one thing that I am not is surprised. We trusted that they would behave like the capable, responsible young people we know that they are. And of course, they did.
Claire Cameron is a Team Leader currently studying her Bachelor of Education (Early Childhood) at Treehouse in the Park Early Learning Centre, operated by Northside Children’s Services. This article is an updated version of documentation prepared by Claire in September 2016.
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