Published on Wednesday 25 March 2020

The concept of children's culture, and children’s access to culture, has been part of the legal and social discourse of many national policies since at least the 1970s. The discourse has grown stronger over subsequent decades, and Malta has an active role to contribute towards those discussions within the European Union.

Our neighbours in the Nordic countries, for example, are prioritising active pedagogies that highlight the participation of young children in creative processes. Creativity is being nurtured across age groups, both inside and outside official institutions. Malta is taking inspiration from this trend, and in my professional experience working with children, they often speak about their after-school activities and hobbies with electric enthusiasm.

Such initiatives, abroad and locally, are rooted in a common past. The concept of children's culture has been a beneficiary of the late twentieth-century policy emphasis on cultural democracy. However, issues such as the prosocial extension of rights to children and the perceived ambiguity of global communications technologies have recently caused cultural policy agencies to redefine the role of the state in cultural policies for children. I was pleased to facilitate in the Arts Council Malta consultation with children for precisely this reason. Namely, to learn more about their current experiences of cultural participation, and how best our institutions can strengthen that access.

Above all, Malta’s national efforts must continue to draw inspiration from the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. This unique document, one of the most widely ratified human rights instruments in the world, lays out a blueprint for the healthy flourishing of children and their communities. For example, Article 31 explicitly provides for the child's right to participate in cultural and artistic life, and Article 29 provides that the aims of education include the development of the child's personality, talents and abilities to their fullest potential. Children are called to be creators and consumers of the arts and culture, as part of their democratic heritage.

To me, this idea of heritage carries resonance. It is the ‘gift’ that we transmit from one generation to the next, and in this case, it is the love and respect for cultural participation that defines a child’s cultural rights.

When I consider what this means in practical terms, the image that comes to mind is of the Medieval cathedral builders. No one can say who built the great cathedrals. We have no record of their names, and these builders gave their whole lives for a work they would never see finished. They made great sacrifices, fuelled by hope for the future generations who would make use of the magnificent structures.

There is the legend of a rich man who came to visit the cathedral while it was still being built. He saw a labourer carving a tiny bird high up on a gargoyle’s wings, where nobody would ever see it. He was puzzled and asked the man, “Why are you spending so much time carving that bird when it can’t even be seen?” And the worker replied, “Because I know it is there, and so does God.”

Rather than simply a point about religious faith, this legend is a reminder that the good work we do within our societies need not be limited by our individual needs and concerns. The prosocial mission of striving for the common good is the heart of what it means to creatively engage with the world. For this reason, the cathedral builders are role models of what it means to create culture, share it freely, and invite participation in the most expansive sense possible.

When we support children to access their cultural rights, we are building great cathedrals. We cannot be sure we are always doing it in the most correct or effective way, but we must persevere. Perhaps one day, it is possible that the world will not only recognise what we have built, but that the world may be transformed by the beauty that has been added to it by the participation of children in the world of culture.