Yesterday I took the children to Tate Britain for a Family Day.
They had given over some five of the rooms to art activities for children: a cardboard city, costumes imprinted with famous artworks which children could use to act out playlets, a musical section with amplified instruments, and a room filled with building blocks.
The place was mayhem. The cafe was manned by just one server, and the queue was round the block.
In a side room, parties of buggies, babies and toddlers were camped out. The scene resembled a refugee camp. On the opposite wall was a series of Gilbert and George tapestries. They looked like vast pencil sketches, and featured the two men sauntering through Constable country. Printed in capitals along the bottom was a message which, paraphrased, reads: 'Art is a way of contemplating life, love and nature, and makes things better for Gilbert and George'. It was a lovely tease: is Art only for the initiated? Is there always a risk of solipsism in the artist? Is the power of Art a loosely guarded secret there for the unravelling if only we choose to look? As I watched, a gallery worker swooped down on a toddler who had got herself behind the wire and was reaching grubby paws up to the tapestry.
Cardboard City was in a dimly lit vestibule, illuminated from side projectors to look kaleidoscopic. It had originally been hundreds of cardboard boxes. Over the course of the Family Day, these were dismantled, flattened and shredded into a thousand pieces. Lolly sticks and tissue paper made amazingly good binding agents, and the place was a sea of kids armouring themselves with cardboard and having fights.
The dressing up room was dominated by a stage, miked up and and covered with clackers, klaxons, bells and recorders. A huge screen was wedged in one corner. Kids were putting on the imprinted oilcloth costumes, which made them all look like mini Elephant men. Then they took to the stage and made incomprehensible noises, which were filmed and screened live. My friend looked at a solitary woman sitting sketching and said, "she didn't choose the best day to come to the Tate, did she?"
The set ups were mainly in rooms filled floor to ceiling with art from the 1800s onwards. Everywhere you looked, flying three-year olds were sailing within inches of priceless artworks. Sticky fingers were hanging on gamely to century-old frames. The noise boomed off the walls. My friend and I conducted a Whistler-stop tour, wistfully telling each other we'd come back, and that somehow we were adding a postmodern twist to the Turners: if he'd tried to capture speed and movement, we were adding relativity to the viewing experience as we ran past, fielding six year olds.
We stuck it out for around two hours, then left for a similarly fraught and harrowing field trip home on the tube, punctuated with rice crackers and exhortations to keep feet off the seats, under the disapproving eye of passengers.
My conclusion? What on earth was the Tate thinking? There really are some places in which children should neither be seen nor heard. Whoever decided that outreach work meant putting a festival in a confined space filled with artworks in order to justify lottery funding is insane.