What children want, what they really, really want

2nd January 1998 at 00:00
When the new Museum of Scotland opens in Edinburgh later this year, the Spice Girls might be there to cut the ribbon. At least, that was one of the suggestions put forward by the junior board of the National Museums of Scotland.

The board has 12 members, aged from nine to 13, who come from all over Scotland. Their main objective is to ensure that the new museum "both delights and communicates effectively with children aged five to 14".

The idea for a junior board was put forward by Scottish Enterprise, which funded the first year of the project. Its press officer, David Cannon, had seen a television programme about a zoo in the south of England, where the work of a junior board had had a profound impact on visitor satisfaction: "Their experience showed that putting children in a position of influence - with grown-ups paying attention to what they said, and acting on it - could have a positive effect on business. We felt this was an idea that could benefit organisations in Scotland, and would also introduce Scottish children to the business world in a very real way and at an early age."

The National Museums of Scotland are anxious that all visitors to their new and "remarkable education resource" will be excited by what they see. Children, in particular, are expected to form a large part of the museum's audience, which is why the NMS was so keen to take on the junior board project. Their efforts should ensure that the new museum will reflect "what children actually want rather than what adults think they want".

Already the board has carried out a significant amount of work, including a nationwide market research survey of 800 primary school children. Mary Bryden, head of NMS public affairs, says it would have cost Pounds 10,000 to have a similar survey carried out by a firm of professionals.

The board interviewed dozens of pupils from each of their own 12 schools, asking them what they liked and disliked about museums. The results, says Mary Bryden, "have been essential to everything we have done since".

For another project, board members were asked to choose two objects from the Art and Industry gallery in the existing Royal Museum of Scotland and write new, personalised, child-friendly labels for them. Kirsten Hutchison, the young representative from Queensferry Primary near Edinburgh, described a Bauhaus chair as follows: "This chair looks so modern and simple. It is a surprise to find that it was designed way back in 1930 by Mies van der Rohe from the Bauhaus Art School in Germany. At that time the Bauhaus was world-famous for its designs. If you look at modern chairs for sale in the shops today, you can see the influence this art school still has on present-day design."

The results impressed NMS staff so much that the children have been asked to write more labels for 100 objects in the new national museum.

The board has also evaluated a new children's written guide and a guided tour already available at the Royal. "They didn't hold back on their criticism, " says Mary Bryden, "and both the guide and the tour have been amended accordingly." Other areas being tackled are the catering facilities for children at the Chambers Street building, the shop, and the welcome young visitors receive by museum wardens when they come through the doors.

The junior board has been an all-round success, says David Cannon. "Initially, some of them seemed keen that the new museum would be a kind of Alton Towers, but they now understand that for a variety of reasons this is neither desirable nor possible.

"Our hope is that more businesses, whose customers include a significant number of children, will also take up the idea."

Deedee Cuddihy

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