Sarah Mayhew-Craddock looks at some of Oxford's cultural centres doing their bit to welcome children

A few weeks ago I took my gurgling Sproglette into an exhibition. She wasn’t being ‘loud’ loud, but her ‘baby chat’ was audible. Another visitor made a ‘loud’ comment; she hoped “that noisy baby” wouldn’t be following her around. Upon overhearing the lady’s remarks the welcoming visitor assistants hung their heads in embarrassment as we hit reverse and made a sharp exit.

I Ieft the gallery wondering if my parenting was just as neglectful as the parents who’d allowed their children to climb on a Donald Judd installation in Tate Modern a year ago. Just as those parents were at ease with their childrens’ behaviour, so I was at ease with Sproglette’s audio guide. I wondered how important it really is for art institutions to welcome little people through their doors. Are the baby change facilities simply lip-service, and a means by which to sell more double espressos in the cafes and cards in the gift shops? I set about to find out…

Dr Xa Sturgis, Director of the Ashmolean, said:

“I can’t tell you how important I think it is that children of all ages are made to feel as welcome as possible in museums. Of course, as a parent, I realise that not every such visit will be successful or rewarding but you never know when, or at what age, an interest might be fired or enthusiasms might be born. If very young children are made to feel museums are enjoyable, exciting places they will come back. Children are often described as the audience of tomorrow (which is obviously true) but they are as importantly the audience of today.”

I was relieved to hear this from Dr Sturgis, and I think he’s right. I would beg my parents to take me on repeat visits to the ruins of Mount Grace Priory and Preston Park Museum and Grounds as a child - what I didn’t know about Carthusian monks and Victorian costume by the age of five wasn’t worth knowing! Equally, it has always struck me that young audiences are far more at ease with contemporary art than adults, who carry their preconceived ideas and fears with them, an idea that was echoed by Paul Hobson, the Director at Modern Art Oxford, who commented,

“Personally, fewer things make me happier than the gallery full of children and young people, who tend to have such an open and inquisitive attitude to art…we would ask any visitor, irrespective of their age or needs, to be considerate of other visitors to the gallery and to mitigate to their best ability against any disruptive or intrusive behaviour.”

It would seem that, whilst welcome, everyone is asked to be respectful of all that they encounter, not a bad adage for life, and one that was underlined by Vanessa Lea, Oxford City Council’s Museum and Heritage Operations Officer who remarked,

“We would like all our visitors to respect, enjoy and engage with our collections, displays and volunteer stewards.”

Sophie Hiscock, The Story Museum’s Fundraising and Communications Manager explained how she believes growing up with stories is fundamental for children, she explained;

“Our aim is to make The Story Museum family-friendly at all levels – from the activities that we offer to the welcome that families receive the moment they step over the threshold.”

From high chairs, to exhibition design, all of these institutions are going out of their way to accommodate littlies. The Museum of Natural History even won the Guardian Family Friendly Museum award in 2005 for their activities, accessibility and the museum’s many touchable objects from the patable pony to the real dinosaur eggs!

In short, it seems we should go forth, inspire and be inspired together with our little people, just so long as we pack a bit of common sense in our change bags.

• The Ashmolean Museum, Beaumont Street, Oxford, OX1 2PH –

• Modern Art Oxford, 30 Pembroke Street, Oxford, OX1 1BP –

• Museum of Oxford, Saint Aldate's, Oxford, OX1 1BX -

• The Story Museum, Rochester House, 42 Pembroke Street, Oxford, OX1 1BP-

Oxford University Museum of Natural History, Parks Road, Oxford, OX1 3PW -

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