March 2017

The Nation Reviewed

Child’s play

By Zoë Morrison
The Melbourne Museum’s new gallery takes small children seriously

At the new Pauline Gandel Children’s Gallery in the Melbourne Museum, there is a huge and unusually shaped climbing structure made of soft ropes and nets. Young children cram and squeeze up the ladder, balance over the nets, hold on to the sides, crawl, stand, jump, sit and look at the view 3 metres above the floor.

Down below, some of the parents are anxious. “I can’t see them up there,” one father says to a friend, his head tilted back. “They should have put a slit in it so we can get up there.” Then, still squinting up, “Maybe we should cut a slit in it.”

“Come down now,” another parent calls for the first of many times. “Please?”

“That big climbing piece is safe, isn’t it?” I asked in a meeting with museum staff. “And adults can go up there too?” “YES,” they chorused. Linda Sproul, the manager of education and community programs at Museums Victoria, elaborated. “Parents can relax. Children are safe.” Then I got the sense she was choosing her words carefully. “A lot of adults may be witnessing their child being adventurous in ways they have never seen before.”

The redeveloped gallery is a world first, partly because of its focus on zero- to five-year-olds. It was created over two years with $4.8 million from the Victorian government and $1 million from Gandel Philanthropy, of which Pauline is a trustee. Museums Victoria states that it will “change the way visitors and their children learn, play and grow together”.

Throughout the gallery’s redevelopment, museum staff consulted with not only 100 adult specialists but also 500 preschool children, from places such as early-learning centres, an Aboriginal day-care centre, a bush playgroup and a special-needs school. During these consultations, museum staff tested their idea for a new “welcome zone”, a child-sized steam train and tunnel, using a mock-up. They wanted to know if the children would enter by themselves or with their parents. They discovered that the children went straight in before their parents. “It was as if they were saying to the adults, ‘Come in here,’” said Kathy Fox, the gallery’s producer. It’s an experience repeated throughout the gallery.

When I duck inside the now completed tunnel I see shiny horizontal tiles and flashing lights, and hear a train soundscape, all suggesting through-movement to me. The children are going up the walls (tiles up the top, vinyl down the bottom) and sliding down. They are laughing, calling, taking their time. Finally we enter the gallery itself.

Sproul said that when thinking began about the gallery almost ten years ago, “we went: ‘we can make a brain garden’.” It’s now common, including among policymakers and politicians, to cite brain-development research that shows the first three years are critical to a child’s development, but it’s significantly less common to see this reflected in the design of public institutions. (Even in educational and care facilities, excellent programs are much more often for the older children.) One early-childhood specialist praised the “high expectations” the gallery has for young children; this is “respectful”. In different ways, the impact of this spreads.

Near the tunnel’s exit is the gallery’s take on a baby’s toy. Babies, children of all ages and adults crowd around it, matching differently shaped pieces into the mouths of faces drawn on a wall so as to hear the resulting sounds. Most memorably, an operatic note warbles across the gallery, making perfect strangers look at one another and smile.

“It touches some part of you,” an early-childhood bureaucrat said about the gallery. “I felt better and more confident in there.” Of a meeting held in the space, she said “we had a different level of creative conversation”. A mother spoke of the “unexpected peace and happiness” she found in the gallery, “even though it was busy and I was tired”.

At the Camo[uflage] Disco exhibit, children are moving to a soundscape in a mirrored space as light projections cover their bodies and the floor. Sproul said she often goes down there just to observe. “I feel like I’m watching Isadora Duncan every time … They’re not trying to dance; they’re embodying themselves in space.”

A father drags two small boys from this exhibit. (They are apparently being too boisterous. “Ow,” one says quietly. “That hurts my arm.”) Another engages in a battle over a toilet visit. “You have to come to the toilet now.” “I don’t need to go.” “You have to come now.” “I don’t want to!” “If you don’t come with me to the toilet now we won’t be coming back.” The child concedes.

I wander into the parents’ room. It is a beautiful space. Smooth white benches dip in three places to create change tables where parents work side by side, gorgeous abstract mobiles dangle over each, and there’s a connected room with magnetic walls and coloured shapes where older siblings can play while they wait. I have never seen anything like it, and am surprised to find myself close to tears.

When Naomi Wolf became a mother and the primary carer of her first child, she wrote:

All around us, the neighbourhood was a cornucopia of consumer comfort. But out on the playground, for women [and children], it was 1947; no shelter from sun or rain, no heated area for cold days, no food, no bathrooms, nowhere to get a cup of coffee or even a box of juice.

During our meeting, Sproul said at one point, mildly, “Public institutions are meant to symbolise things.”

I lie on my back in another exhibit and listen to Dreamtime stories – narrated by a Taunwurrung man from central Victoria, about the constellations of the stars – while watching an animation of magpies pushing up the night sky with sticks in their beaks. On my way out I stop at an interactive wall mural. When touched in hidden places, the quirky black-and-white drawings based on simple shapes spin off into witty multicoloured, animated projections. I touch a monochrome butterfly and gasp. A flock of colourful butterflies has taken off from the back of my hand and is flying up into the sky, through the clouds, among the stars, and then they come back again.

Zoë Morrison

Zoë Morrison is the author of the novel Music and Freedom.

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