Museums should evolve to meet the times

By Crystal Cline — Memorial University of Newfoundland (CUP)
Image by: Sarah Ackerman

The war on social problems has reached new heights in America, and museums are the latest weapon. The Children’s Museum of Manhattan, for example, does its part to prevent childhood obesity with displays that send an unsubtle message: get healthy, kids.

The museum has erected a play centre where visitors learn the power of pedalling, bouncing, and jumping. There’s a place to meet super-powered vegetable heroes and an exhibition where kids crawl through a digestive system.

This museum isn’t unique in its initiative. The New York Times reports that The Young at Art Museum in Davie, Florida, has an after-school arts program for homeless students, while the Providence Children’s Museum on Rhode Island helps foster care children find permanent families. The Children’s Museum of the Arts in Manhattan provides a place for foster-care children to reunite with their birth parents. What do they do when they are reunited? They make art, of course.

Museums are becoming much more than receptacles for relics. They bridge gaps in places where there is often red tape. Social workers want to help build relationships between parent and child; the Children’s Museum of the Arts in Manhattan is creating a new avenue where that can happen.

Museums are also evolving to meet the needs of today’s generation. Children are much heavier now than they were 20 years ago. Video games, television and fast food have contributed to high obesity rates in North America. Why not show children the benefits of eating healthy and exercising in an environment that’s even more fun than McDonalds?

In my opinion, there’s no better way to learn than by doing something hands-on. If a child can explore an exhibition play centre at a museum, they are more likely to retain that information because they will relate it to a fun memory. Canada needs to jump on this bandwagon. We need more programs like this to benefit children and adults alike, especially as we struggle to understand challenges such as social inequalities, the effects of poor health choices and bullying.

Bullying is front-and-centre in the media lately, following the conviction of 20-year-old Dharun Ravi on March 16. Ravi spied on his roommate using a webcam and streamed footage of the man’s romantic encounters on the Internet. Shortly after the victim discovered what Ravi had been doing, he committed suicide. Ravi was accused of bias intimidation as a hate crime. The trial resulted in a sentence of 30 days in prison.

The availability of educational programs during Ravi’s youth might have altered his decision to bully later on in his life. Ravi may have been an American, but there are dozens of similar cases in Canada where bullying has ended in tragedy. Canada needs to turn museums into integral centres for education in order to ensure that our kids grow into the best people they can be. Education on bullying should be part of that process.

Who knows? In a few years’ time, we may see an exhibition on psychological effects of bullying. We may yet fully embrace the positive effects that cultural environments like museums can have on our kids.