A few days ago, my fiancé told me he had found the perfect wedding present for me, but wanted to check with me first before buying it. He had recently seen something on Reddit about Ruth Oosterman, an artist, mother, and blogger (see The Mischievous Mommy), who collaborates with her two-year-old daughter to produce artworks. My fiancé was thinking about buying one of these works for me.
Of course, I was immediately excited at the thought of owning such a meaningful piece (though not convinced that wedding presents between the bride and groom aren’t a bit excessive). I began doing some research on The Mischievous Mommy and also found a similar story about a mother-child artistic team at busy mockingbird. Both Ruth and busy mockingbird author, Mica Angela Hendricks, collaborate with their young daughters to produce highly unique, creative, and visually striking works of art.
On their blogs, both women note the fearless creativity of their young collaborators, the equality of the working partnership, and the remarkable outcomes of the collaborations—which always far exceed their expectations for the works (Mica Angela Hendricks, ‘Collaborating with a 4-year Old’; Ruth Oosterman, ‘Thank you.’).
In many ways, our culture tends to view children as formative beings, or works in progress. As adults, we often value creative efforts that are neat and clearly contained. A child’s ‘scribbles’ may be seen as a valid developmental step, but lacking in control and skill. We fail to see children as our intellectual equals and in doing so, limit the possibilities for what we can achieve in partnership with them.
The opportunities that these two girls receive in co-creating these works are likely very empowering for them. Collaborative projects created in a context of true equality (as these appear to be) confirm for the child that they have truly contributed to the success of the project.
I remember that as a nanny, I was initially concerned about collaborating too much on creative projects. I was afraid I would take over the project or reduce the child’s sense of ownership over the finished product. While it was worth keeping these cautions in mind, I realized that the refusal to collaborate (especially when eagerly invited) can mean a loss of mutual learning opportunities. And I do really mean mutual; on countless occasions, I found myself presented with a superior solution to a problem, or proved wrong in my pessimistic assessment that a certain approach wouldn’t work.
Collaboration with children need not always involve the co-creation of an artwork, but could involve any genuinely shared enterprise. A few years ago, I was leaving MoMA (Museum of Modern Art) in New York City when I came across a mother and child selling their work together on the street. Charmed by this delightful business duo, I bought a wonderful work from young artist, Hannah.
Clearly, one of the ways we can communicate a child’s creative equality is by recognizing the child’s contribution as valid and significant. I am certain Angelina Jolie’s children felt validated to see their drawings depicted on their mother’s designer wedding gown—a ‘not-insignificant’ medium or context.
I feel that these kinds of collaborations could find many happy applications in the social service oriented museum.
At the Queensland Museum (in Brisbane, Australia), the Egg Sort activity invites children to help the museum by identifying and collecting stick insect eggs for their nursery. This activity seems to be deeply absorbing and satisfying for the children that visit, perhaps because the children clearly feel that they are contributing.
What can museums do to ensure children feel empowered to contribute and assured that their contributions are valued?
Here are some of my thoughts:
- Ask children for their ideas and solutions, and try to implement them.
- Recognize a child’s work for its equal contribution by elevating, validating, and placing alongside the work of adults.
- Consider the way that children’s contributions may augment and enhance regular exhibitions and programs (in addition to designated children’s galleries and programs).
- Invite children to collaborate with artists, curators, parents and caregivers, and other museum staff through participatory exhibits and innovative public programs.
Your thoughts are most welcome.
(Finally, another benefit of meaningfully acknowledging children’s work in the museum is the fact that children—with their unabashed pride and confidence—bring everyone they know into the museum to see their work…)