by David Safier
I went to the U Penn Museum of Archaeology and Antropology this morning. Great place, by the way, worth a morning's visit after you've visited 50 other great places in Philadelphia.
I was in a third floor room that reminded me of the Pantheon in Rome –a large, circular room with a very high dome. It was a perfect place for echoes to bounce around. I heard kids' voices in the distance. Before I saw them, enough of their voices had floated into the room to become a strong, resonating echo, a shapeless cacophony of sound. It reminded me of the turning point scene from E.M. Forster's Passage to India in the Marabar caves where the babble of echoes frightens and confuses one of the English characters.
Trailing the sound by a half a minute, a group of middle schoolers on a field trip came in, first a few ambling, animated boys, then others. What I noticed is that the kids weren't "well behaved" in the traditional sense. They weren't quiet and solemn, whispering and walking in lines. They were like kids being kids in a space filled with stuff. Yet they weren't misbehaving, and the teachers seemed perfectly at ease and on top of the situation.
And most important to me, the kids seemed to be pretty much enjoying themselves, or at worst tolerating the visit. I saw none of the surliness or aggression you often see from a few kids on this kind of field trip.
The noise level didn't bother me, but I imagine it could have bothered others (though the museum was fairly empty at the time). And I honestly think the kids were having a better time in the museum — enjoying the museum more — than if their voices and bodies had been more restrained.
Later, in another part of a museum, two women had five or six kids with them ranging from 8 to 15. Again, the kids were semi-loud, but it was mainly to talk about what they were seeing, not to be obnoxious or rude. And again, they were having a good time going through the exhibits.
I don't want to make a value judgment about whether this is a good or bad change from the stricter order people used to impose on children in museums. But it's different. Personally, I liked it, because I like to see enjoyment and interest reflected in kid's faces and bodies and voices. I always tried to create an informal — maybe "unformal" is a better word — atmosphere in my classrroom and encouraged my students to be themselves, often with good results, though sometimes my classroom would get a bit too chaotic.
I think the middle schoolers left the museum with a better feeling than if they had been forced to be more restrained. If it got any looser, it could have been a problem, but my sense is that the adults had things under control. At one point, they told the kids to head to the auditorium, that's what they did easily and readily.
We're a different, less formal nation now, for better and for worse. The contrast between the students and the normally staid atmosphere of the museum allowed me to see it more clearly than I usually do.