Remember when the show Old Enough, set in Japan, was the talk of the town when it came to Netflix a few years ago? In case you don’t, the show began airing in 1991, and documented the Japanese tradition of sending very little children on errands. It features children from ages 2-5 doing tasks for their parents and caregivers like delivering an apron to their father’s work, or picking up groceries. American audiences quickly commented on how impossible it would be to replicate the premise in the United States – but with little self-awareness that the way they themselves think about young people might be contributing to that cultural difference.
The fact that American audiences largely decided to dismiss the notion that it would even be possible to foster a society in which children are empowered to participate in it, rather than question what it would mean to be able to send a three year old to the store without worrying about whether or not they would come back safely, speaks volumes to how little Americans view child rearing as a communal responsibility.
There are also certain things in our society that are deemed to be innate talents no matter how much you explain to people that you’ve worked really hard to be good at them. (Those “certain things” always seem to be divorced from a for-profit product…weird lol.) Kids are happy with adults who put in the effort to learn how to meet them at their level. Sure, there are some people who are effortlessly amazing with kids, just like there are people who have abs without trying. Dismissing talented and effective educators as just being “good with kids” gives the majority of people a pass to excuse themselves from worrying about kids. That’s bad for everyone, kids, and adults. Did you know that all adults were once kids? And that kids turn into adults?
As a museum educator, and a museum educator who was worked extensively with every type of museum audience you can think of, I have fielded quite a bit of public perception and different levels of respect for working with those audiences. I’ve only been asked what school I go to while working with children, in contrast with people being dazzled by my mediocre educational credentials when I work with adults. It’s wild to try to think about another job where a person is responsible for holding the attention of a roomful of people while the perception is that said person has zero qualifications for doing so. This is a good time to add a friendly reminder that if you ask a woman if she has children, and she says no, you don’t need to say, “wow, but you’re so great with them! So maybe it’s just not yet!” There are a lot of reasons why someone may not have children, and I’ve found the painful reasons more common than the joyful choice to be child-free.
Maybe people think working is an entry-level job because it can be thankless. This is especially true in a museum context where full-time staff takes on a heavy administrative role and finds less and less opportunity to be face to face with the children themselves. The multi-generational work of managing the expectations and feelings of other adults – including caregivers of young people and our colleagues tasked with keeping artwork and collections safe – is often unseen and disconnected from the joyful parts of the work. Chicken or the egg – are jobs thankless because they’re entry-level or are they entry-level because people think of them as thankless?
As someone who has been on the programmatic side and behind-the-scenes side of the work, something I think a lot about is what can be postponed and what is actually immediate. Just like a classroom teacher, those of us who manage programs that real, breathing, walking humans attend can tell you that when we say we don’t have time to eat lunch or take a bio break, we aren’t just saying that because we need to answer a lot of emails. Programs for children who are actually not made of cardboard always need staffing support. Supervising interns is a tall order in understaffed art museums that often lack the necessary structure that large corporations use to ensure a meaningful opportunity to enter the field for college students and recent graduates. Supervising can be a whole lot to add to the plate of a museum professional who is already wearing 6 hats and probably filling in for multiple roles at once, and because of these combined factors, museum interns often find themselves helping with summer camps, materials prep, and art classes.
As a result, it becomes easy to associate working with children as a “first step” in the museum career ladder, instead of being a wholly independent career in and of itself. I’ve met many museum professionals who say they got their start in Education – but often, the reality of this is that they wanted to work in a museum, offered themselves to the museum to work for free or very low pay, and found themselves working in programs for children, always knowing that it was a stepping stone on their way to what they consider to be a “real” career. Many things will not actually fall apart if you don’t get to it right away: creating an exhibition checklist, organizing loans, designing a new logo. But if there’s no one there to take group of campers to the restroom in the middle of the day, or to walk a child through a quiet gallery when they’re having a tough time, things will get out of hand real fast.
I’ve already written about some of the issues intrinsic to a lack of understanding of what it actually looks like and takes to work with kids in this post and a general lack of understanding of education in art museums in this one. In the latter, I talk about interpretation, and how the discipline is on the rise to coincide with a realization by museum leaders that relevance is actually very important to a 21st century museum.
A lot of Interpretation professionals are former Museum Educators. While Interpretation is in fact a different thing – for example, exhibition design factors into Interpretation, and rarely into the job description of an Educator – in some ways, it simply builds on the skills of Museum Education. The objective of both professions is to distill and provide context around the meaning of artworks for a broad audience and to ensure a positive, engaging experience with original works of art.
I love art museum interpretation professionals and consider myself to be one, even if the job title I hold has more to do with programming than design and didactic texts. if you’re a frequent reader, you’ll see my references to the genius of the Association of Art Museum Interpretation pop up over and over. I preface this to ensure that there is no shade being thrown at interpreters – and you know I love throwing shade, I wouldn’t lie about that – but I worry that with the rise of Interpretation, there will just be another ranking above Educators in the hierarchy of art museum professions. I’ve written quite a bit about how educators can sometimes seem insufferable (again, takes one to know one) because they bend over backwards to prove that they are just as smart and educated as curators. But this does doesn’t come from a whole field of professionals having imposter syndrome; rather, from this perception that if you’re great at working with kids, the perception is that you’re “just great with kids.” Educators are highly educated, great researchers, driven to stay informed about the latest pedagogy and voraciously share information with colleagues about developmentally appropriate lessons and strategies.
The concept for this post started brewing in my lil ol brain when I decided to leave a small institution with a role in Interpretation (my dream) for a larger institution with a role in Family Programs (that I had previously tried to move on from). I could feel myself preparing to do the Educator thing where I must somehow explain that it isn’t a step backwards to go back to Family Programs, because of these perceived and completely fictional hierarchies. I know I’m not alone in feeling this way, but I may also have a larger chip on my shoulder about it because of a well-meaning mentor figure who asked me, when I last changed jobs 5ish years ago, “do you want to be known as the Family Programs person forever?” Ouch.
Once I met my new colleagues in my new role, I knew I had made the right decision for myself at this point in my life. Being around people who work with young people and intergenerational groups made me immediately feel lighter and less encumbered by the weight of the “stakes” (despite currently being responsible for the day-to-day operations of an incredibly high-stakes project). Remember when I talked about art being fun and serious (link)? Remember soldiers, do not give yourself to brutes? Working with children reminds me that the importance of working in the arts is that it is fun. Are you mad about the state of *gestures wildly* THINGS? Dedicating your time to teach young young people that leisure, exploration, discovery, experimentation, fun, self-expression, friendship, history, and silliness are wonderful things is a great way to at least try to secure a better future. Raising children is something we should all concern ourselves with. It makes no sense to pin your hopes on the next generation. How are they supposed to learn what’s right if YOU don’t teach them?
It’s been a rough three years, a rough seven years, a rough fifteen years, a rough twenty-two years. We’re not living through the easiest of times. I would argue that finding the fortitude to attempt to set aside your own despair and work to show young people how big and beautiful and friendly the world can be, is one of the harder jobs. To take this on, you’re going to want to be supported by years of experience, significant research, a network of brilliant colleagues, and a strong sense of self. Personally, I wasn’t equipped with these things as an entry-level professional.