University of Cambridge Museums

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Nobody Puts Baby in a Corner

Under 2s at the Fitzwilliam Museum

Can babies really enjoy museums?  How can they engage with our collections? Surely babies are all about mess, noise and chaos?!

In response to requests from visitors and colleagues working in local Children’s Centres, here at the Fitzwilliam Museum we have begun to develop resources and sessions for our youngest visitors – those under two years old, and their families.

IMG_6544In October we ran three very popular ‘Crawler Explorer’ sessions for little ones – the only events for the 0-2 age range in Cambridge University’s Festival of Ideas programme.  The babies were invited into the ceramics gallery.  This is a much more sensible idea than it sounds: most of the objects in this room are displayed behind glass, and many are displayed at a low level and so are easily viewed from sitting or lying on the floor.  In addition, lots of these objects can be easily compared with things that even very young children encounter in their daily experience: bowls, cups, dishes, containers and so forth.

Visiting the museum when you are very young, or when you are responsible for a very young person, can be a daunting experience and visitors may feel nervous about trying something new. In order to highlight some of the possibilities of the gallery’s resources for little ones, I provided a gentle structure to the session, offering suggestions about what to do. However, any babies who chose to crawl or toddle away were welcome to do so, acknowledging that even our youngest visitors should be able to assert their own preferences as to what they see and do at the museum!

Fun, welcoming, stimulating for all ages.
Mum of Edward, aged 7 months

So what can babies do in museums? During the session we:
• Read the picture book ‘Owl Babies’, while gazing at our magnificent Owl-shaped punchbowl
• Sang Old King Cole surrounded by images of kings gone by
• Rocked and soothed babies by lullabies inspired by many ceramic cradles on display
• Used images of ships on dishes and a large piece of shimmery blue fabric to create rhythmic waves
• Highlighted colour, texture, shape, internal & external space and pattern through exploration of open-ended resources such as blocks, containers and utensils
• Imagined the function of some of our museum objects by acting out a tea party with our lovely fabric tea set
• Shared a ‘Little Bo Peep’ book to help us understand the mournful look on the face of a shepherdess figurine
• Enjoyed all the faces in the gallery, including our own, by playing with mirrors

“An exciting way for young children to engage with the museum and art.  Well run session with real thought put in”
Mum of Wynn, aged 4 months

The babies also worked in our art studio, continuing to express themselves as autonomous learners by exploring colour, movement, and cause & effect through a simple non-messy paint activity.

Concerns about babies and toddlers rampaging through the galleries threatening the safety of objects and disturbing other visitors were unfounded.  Carefully planned and pitched activities and resources meant that the atmosphere was one of quiet concentration as the babies thought, wondered, explored, discovered and contemplated, inspired by the amazing collection around them.

“Lovely and relaxed; made us all feel so comfortable.  Great to have my son exposed to a fantastic museum at such an early age.”
Mum of Jack, aged 10 months

So in fact, baby visitors are not vastly different from their older counterparts, and as such should be treated with the same respect for their needs, experiences, preferences and abilities.  There is no need to sequester babies away or segregate them from other members of the visiting public.  Surely one of the great joys of the shared museum space is that we can all enjoy it together?

IMG_6374Our work with babies in the museum continues: we have run a session exploring weather and features of the outdoors in our Impressionist gallery and have developed a new resource for visitors to use on independent visits to the museum.  The baby play mat is full of carefully-selected resources that connect with themes and objects in the collection and can be borrowed free of charge from the Courtyard Entrance.  It can be opened out in any gallery to create a cosy and stimulating play space for a young baby and his/her family.

“We used to come regularly before having children.  We will now definitely be bringing her with us when visiting again!”
Mum of Matilda, aged 10 months

If you are interested in finding out more about our work with babies in museums please contact Nicola Wallis.

Nicola Wallis, Gallery Teacher, Fitzwilliam Museum

One comment on “Nobody Puts Baby in a Corner

  1. Anonymous
    January 28, 2015

    Outside of the accessible artefacts very young children are attracted to and by the contrasts in changing light either from reflective case glass, occasional windows letting in natural light and/or the high domes in the founders entrance which are like bowls that glow. They look up before the parents do. The long galleries with wooden floors are great for toddlers to practise treading the boards making responsive sounds and they delight in the acoustics, echoing their voices in the older high ceiling galleries…not to mention the interaction with people of all ages bustling and chatting about…all conducive to museum all round learning…

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This entry was posted on January 20, 2015 by in Culture, Education, Learning Spaces, News and tagged , , , .
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