The experience we had visiting the National Gallery of Australia (see Part 1 of this article here) highlighted a question that has been at the forefront of my mind since the visit: How are children viewed and positioned in today’s society?
Although to some, the treatment we received at the NGA would be overlooked as a one-off negative experience that isn’t worth giving another thought, however we believe that there is a deeper underlying issue here that is extremely important. We decided that we needed to express our concerns to the gallery, so we sent a letter to the Director of the NGA, along with the documentation I wrote about our experience.
The purpose of this letter wasn’t to complain, or to point fingers at the particular members of staff we dealt with that day. It was to express our concern that this particular public institution was promoting a culture in which children were not welcome or valued.
Disappointingly but not surprisingly, we did not receive a reply, so we did what all good activists for a cause do and sent out yet another letter. After quite some time, we finally received a response from a representative of the gallery but unfortunately the response wasn’t exactly what we had hoped for.
The response we received from the gallery seemed to imply that if we had notified the gallery that we were coming, maybe they would have been better equipped to deal with us. Our argument is: do guests of the gallery need to give notice in order for staff treat them respectfully? I understand that for large groups (of 50 or so primary school children for example) obviously notice would be necessary. But for 9 children with 3 adults, I would disagree.
We were then invited to return to the gallery to visit the children-specific section of the gallery. This here is where I believe the problem lies. Yes, children-specific areas of public institutions definitely have merit, and are often well thought out with meaningful learning experiences for children and their families. However, I do not believe that children should be limited to these areas alone. Who decides what works of art children can and cannot appreciate?
The fact that the gallery is inviting us to view the children’s exhibit, rather than the “adult specific” Indigenous exhibit that we wanted to visit in the first place, proves that our point hasn’t really gotten through.
The children that attended the gallery that day behaved in an exemplary manner. They were respectful, curious, engaged, polite and enthusiastic learners, thrilled to have the opportunity to view the stunning range of artworks the National Gallery has to offer. They didn’t behave any differently than any of the adults present in the gallery, however they unwelcome because of one differentiating factor: their age.
Sure, we would love to take the children to explore the children’s exhibit some time, but should that be the only part of the gallery they are welcome to explore?
The response we received from the gallery definitely left me feeling a little disheartened. I began to question if maybe we should just let it go, as we were trying to change the opinion of people who don’t see that there’s even a problem, so what’s the point
However it was when my colleague Kate handed me a piece of paper with responses she had gathered from the children about the gallery excursion whilst I was away, that the point suddenly became clearer than ever.
“They told us we were doing the wrong thing. We weren’t doing the wrong thing. I didn’t feel very good.”
“Why do you think the adults at the gallery weren’t being very nice?” “Because we are little.”
These responses and the several other responses similar to these, is exactly why we are doing this, why we aren’t giving up on this. This culture that has been created at the gallery where children are viewed as untrustworthy, incapable and unwelcome, had the children leaving the gallery with a feeling that they were exactly that. This is not okay, and something needs to be done about it. This is no longer about our particular gallery experience. It is about the underlying culture of many public institutions that view children as incapable and untrustworthy.
There have definitely been some positives to come out of this whole experience. One of the families at Treehouse sent our documentation about the gallery experience to Jodie Griffiths-Cook, the Children and Young people Commissioner for the ACT. Her feedback was extremely positive and encouraging, and she asked if she could come out to Treehouse to meet the children and talk to them about their experience.
This experience has also been a springboard for conversations with the children about children’s rights and about why their opinions matter and we are currently brainstorming some more ways we can help the children express their views and opinions about their experience.
We hope that by seeing how children are viewed and positioned at Treehouse as capable, responsible individuals, the decision-makers at the National Gallery may be able to re-evaluate how children are viewed and positioned at the NGA.
And if all else fails, I’m sure just meeting our group of enthusiastic, curious, intelligent young people will be enough to convince them that children deserve to be taken seriously.
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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