Kids these days! engaging youth in Canada’s museums

Muse April 2008

Shannon Wong of Victoria is only 12 years old but already she’s a seasoned museum veteran. As a junior docent at the Royal British Columbia Museum, she avidly studied up on the Titanic so she could respond to visitors’ queries about the recent exhibition. “It’s better if people explain things to them,” she says, “better than audio sets because visitors can ask questions.”

It’s like this from coast to coast; many of Canada’s museums have special programs to involve youngsters and from their experiences the youth have a wealth to offer. It’s much more than the standard classroom visits. They’re suggesting ideas, planning new shows, writing promotional material, organizing opening galas, hosting visitors and more. It all adds up to some surprisingly professional work, and they have a lot to say about things grownups may be overlooking.

To find out what, we talked to youth in a range of age groups: the Junior Docents Program at the Royal British Columbia Museum (ages 9 to 15), the Cellules science [Science Think Tanks] program at the Montreal Science Centre (9 to 15), the Teen Council at the National Gallery of Canada (teens) and the Youth Arts Council at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery (14 to 20). We asked why museums were important to them, their likes and dislikes, what they’d like to see changed and how they would attract more youth through their doors. There’s more to it than the students: we also talked to their museum educators and teachers to learn their challenges.

What the kids had to say

When we asked why they think museums are important and why they like to go, we heard it was mostly about the value of the learning experience. “Museums…showcase the stories of specific peoples, their art, beliefs and histories,” says Victoria May of Ottawa. The youngsters agreed that museums are an easier, more fun way to learn about these. “You can visualize things more than from books,” says Rebekah Prette of Victoria. Kevin Brazeau, member of Cellules science, likes the “atmosphere of discovery” he encounters at the Montreal Science Centre. They say it isn’t just about the past and present, either. It prepares one better for later life; the more you learn about the past, the more you can understand things for the future.

Art galleries hold a particular appeal. “They show us the how each style began and where the general forms of art were born,” says NGC Teen Council member Juanita Bawagan. Brianne, Thunder Bay Art Gallery Youth Arts Council member, goes further to say, “art inspires almost everything, like fashion, so it’s important for people to have a place to go and look at things.” Her co-member Jessica, adds, “art is such a good way to express ourselves and our emotions. So I think it’s important for people to have somewhere to go and see the art and relate to the emotion after seeing it.”

What do they like most about museums? One reason why the students liked museums as places to learn and understand may be found in responses to that question. We found the youngsters generally liked the atmosphere, and the fascinating and creative way museums find to present their shows. “I like the setups, statues and things like that—makes it all interesting,” sums up Colton Ballard, a junior docent at the RBCM. Rebekah Prette, also a junior docent, likes “the way you can touch and feel things—people can learn without realizing it.”

Love them as they do, the kids put their fingers on some museums’ negative sides, especially as they relate to youthful appeal. Although some say they there’s nothing they would change, most talked about aspects they don’t like.

“I don’t like passive museums, when you can’t get into whatever you’re learning about. For example, [being allowed to sketch] makes it more of an active learning process versus a boring detached experience,” says Rebecca Cheff, NGC Teen Council member.

A common complaint was that many museums, especially the art galleries, are elitist and unreceptive to youth. “What I do not like about museums is their stereotype as an inaccessible place for only the elite, sophisticated and rich,” says Juanita Bawagan, another NGC Teen Council member. One of her co-members, Teresa Wozniak, adds, “I find that, because I am a youth and I don’t have a university degree, oftentimes I will get frowned upon by the more ‘educated’ crowd who may believe that my opinions are not important or that I don’t know much about art simply because I am young.” Teen Council member Assma Basalamah says that as a teenager, she doesn’t feel like a targeted audience.

In a conference call with members of the Youth Arts Council at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery, many of the criticisms were also related to snobbishness. For example, some museums are too quiet and awkward. “Everybody standing around and not talking, only whispers,” says Brianne. “They should talk about the art, talk about what they’re seeing.” And the art descriptions can be too uppity. “The language is too ‘arty’,” says Breanna. “It should be written more for people who don’t know a lot about art.”

So, how would they improve on these? Most say museums should be more interactive. NGC Teen Council member Juanita Bawagan’s comments sum it up. “Museums need to come to life because they showcase so many lives,” she says. “Speaking of art galleries specifically, they need to include all of the senses. The works are highly visually stimulating but they simulate life and life is not just about seeing. People want to be able to feel art and hear it.”

Less time spent reading the panels was also recommended. It’s better to have a person to answer questions, some say. And, “make smaller panels; they’re faster to read,” suggests Colton Ballard, RBCM junior docent.

Too infrequent show changes were another gripe: many indicated that if you go to museums often, you see the same things over and over again. “I definitely think that a balance between old and new is essential for any museum,” says NGC Teen Council member Rebecca Cheff. Adds Brianne, Youth Arts Council member at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery, “I think that having different things like not just the standard painting on the wall, like doing workshops or tattoo art.”

How would they encourage other people their age to get involved? We found the answer to this one was all about communication—letting their friends know how much fun it is to volunteer at a museum. And emphasize the benefits. “I’d tell them the highlights of the museum,” says 15-year-old Zack Nicol, who became an RBCM junior docent at age 10. “As a volunteer you can take your parents any time, and no matter what you like, there’s always something there for everyone.” Junior docent Colton Ballard says he’d tell them how volunteer museum work can open up job opportunities too.

Victoria May, NGC Teen Council member, says “the best way to get others involved is to lead by example. When your friends see that you are passionate about something and that you have fun when you are engaged in any activity, there will always be a degree of willingness on their part to try it out.”

The kids say it’s important for youth to realize that they don’t have to know how to draw or paint to become involved in the art community. They say galleries can be intimidating for people their age. “Hopefully shedding the elitist stereotype will bring more youth into the art community,” says Teresa Wozniak, NGC Teen Council member.

Many are working towards that goal already by organizing art workshops specifically for teens. Unconventional art workshops, unusual materials and techniques, fashion shows in the gallery, bands and performers. “It’s important to make museums more than just the typical, school learning environment,” says NGC Teen Council member Rebecca Cheff.

Nick, Youth Arts Council member at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery, says, “the best possible way to get other teens and youth involved in art is by having exhibitions and galleries that focus on art that’s made by youth. And encouraging them to contribute to those exhibitions.” Co-member Brenden adds they’ll be doing things not normally associated with art, like an open mike and using music to bring in different kinds of people who maybe wouldn’t come to the gallery to see the art. “If they’re coming to play music or listen to music then they’re still going to be exposed to the art that’s in the gallery,” he says.

Promotion of youth programs was also mentioned—advertising campaigns, mail lists, perhaps TV ads. “Send a really cool email to young people,” suggests Kevin Brazeau, member of Cellules science. “Target the areas that already attract adolescents.”

Museum educators’ views and challenges on youth programs

Some of these kids must be on the right track: overall, museum educators say interest in their youth programs is increasing to the point where the recruiting has become self-sustaining. But there are challenges.

Tina Lowery of the RBCM’s Programs and Production Services says a big challenge for her junior docents program is its cost. “The program has only been offered when an extra staff person is available,” she says. Which can present problems when trying to create a community of junior docents. “Helping the kids to feel a part of the greater docent / volunteer community within the museum and within their own group of junior docents is important.” She finds another challenge is in dealing with some parents, who can tend to get either too much or too little involved with their children in the program. “The junior docents often work on their own and not closely supervised,” says Lowery. “So they need to be self-directed and able to focus on their role without the assistance of an adult.”

The ‘belonging’ aspect for youth is familiar to Shelina Merani, Education Officer at the National Gallery of Canada, too. She says one of her greatest challenges with the Teen Council has been in letting zealous and energetic teens know that the Council is part of the system. “Sometimes they’d love to do certain things and I have to stop and tell them we need to be careful, we’re working in a gallery environment,” she explains. “For instance, when you’re in the gallery you have to be dressed a certain way and communicate with people in a certain way.” It’s working, she says. “When new members come on, the [more senior ones] are passing on that message.”

Merani says she originally marketed the program quite heavily but it now seems to be self-sustaining. “I get regular contact from teens now. They’re calling me all the time. I get a few emails every week from teens who are interested—it’s been word of mouth or they’ve seen our website.” So now she says a new challenge is how to say no to these people. The reduction in marketing effort ameliorates another challenge: her time. “I have to be on top of everything,” she says.

At the Thunder Bay Art Gallery, the Youth Arts Council membership has also become self-sustaining. “The greatest challenge was to get the YAC started and recruit youth,” says Amy Bartlett, the Gallery’s educator. “However now that we have built up momentum and the youth support and believe in the program they have been actively recruiting other youth.” Which she says has solved another old problem: attendance at meetings. But another challenge has been engaging teachers. “We have a few art teachers who are supportive of the YAC and help to recruit youth and will advocate on behalf of the council for us. But there are many other high school art teachers who do not bring their art classes to the Gallery.”

Monique Camirand, organizer of the Cellules science program at the Montreal Science Centre, says the young people involved in the program are very dynamic and they love to express their ideas. “They’re not afraid to criticize our ideas and projects, and that really helps us improve our exhibitions,” she says. “But these kids don’t always agree and they often express themselves in very different ways.” Although it’s a challenge, that’s what they promote through the museum’s web site. “We make it clear that we’re looking for dynamic young people who are comfortable expressing themselves.” She adds that the kids tell them what they expect from the museum which has enabled them to develop accordingly.

The teachers

Joanna Swim has witnessed some of the criticisms the students have raised, such as not being taken seriously as youth. “There is a degree of ageism,” says the visual arts teacher at Colonel By Secondary School in Ottawa. “The thought that they are ‘just kids’ or that it’s ‘only student work’ is de-motivating and frustrating for students.” For a solution, she’s in concert with the museum educators and the students themselves: “Having youth plan programming for their peers is one obvious but innovative approach.”

Swim says she faces other challenges. “The challenges in promoting and sustaining their interest are largely due to time and practical concerns like transportation,” she says. “My students are incredibly busy.”

Marian Stevenson, who teaches visual arts to secondary students at Westgate Collegiate and Vocational Institute in Thunder Bay, takes her pupils to see “art as it lives and breathes; because you don’t get a true sense of it from slides or books.” Because sports tends to dominate the extra-curricular program, she feels different venues are important. She suggests, “more communication, such as having a video or interactive meeting set up in the schools at lunchtime; or some kind of display in the halls,” for promoting it to the students.

Vanessa Bouchard, a Secondary 3 and 5 (Séminaire de Chicoutimi) teacher, likes to take her students to the Musée du Fjord because it has presented the historic, natural and artistic heritage of the Saguenay and the Baie des Ha Ha since 1967. “The school program of the Musée du Fjord presents specialized activities for different age groups,” she says. “[It] gives us what we’re looking for on a visit.” But she admits there are challenges too, like arousing the students’ interest. “You need to prepare the kids before the visit, review what they’ve seen afterwards, and tie it in with what they’re learning in school—either in the form of discussion or assignments,” she says. “Otherwise, the students don’t see any relationship to their museum visit and quickly lose interest.”

Which sums up the role that youth groups like the RBCM’s Junior Docents, the Thunder Bay Art Gallery’s Youth Arts Council, the Montreal Science Centre’s Cellules science program and the NGC’s Teen Council are playing for museums: they know what kids like and how to get their attention.

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