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Museums are Fun, Kids, I Swear!

March 4, 2014

“Confections” Oil 1962 Wayne Thiebaud

Oil 1962
Wayne Thiebaud

Lessons from My Own Experiences

Wouldn’t it be fun to take your toddler to an art museum today?  What?  That doesn’t sound like your idea of a good time?

Art museums really can be lots of fun with your children–even very young children.  Perhaps you’re an art lover who could spend hours looking at paintings, reading every label, studying brushstrokes or marveling at sculptural genius.  Or maybe you think of art museums as a little stuffy and boring, and you don’t feel any real connection to the art.  In either case, taking your toddlers and young children to an art museum can give you a whole new perspective and some surprising insights on things you may have seen many times before.

I was trained as an art historian and before I had children I worked in a number of museums in various departments–education, research, and publications.  My three daughters, my husband and I have spent many hours at art museums over the years.  Our kids are teenagers now, but I have a very clear memory of going to the Vermeer show at the National Gallery with my oldest in her stroller when she was 6 weeks old.  Since then we’ve made many visits to the art museums along the Mall as well as cities across the US and in travels to France, England, Italy, Spain and Germany.  Just last weekend we were in Pittsburgh and had a great time at the Andy Warhol Museum.  That’s a great museum for kids and teenagers, with many familiar things and hands on activities such as filming your own screen test and collaging, painting and screen printing activities in the basement studio.

The first thing to do as parents or caregivers is adjust your expectations.  Maybe you’ve gone to see an exhibition with kids in tow only to have them drive you crazy, get reprimanded by the guards, and run loudly through the galleries while other patrons gave them, and YOU, angry stares of disapproval.  Your child thinks this is a ridiculous place where people won’t let you have fun, and you are exhausted and exasperated and didn’t really get to see what you wanted to see.

Because I value art museums as almost magical places where you can visit other countries, eras, and cultures, or immerse yourself in a world of color and form that can shut out everything else, I really wanted my children to see them as places to have fun; or at the very least, not view them as boring places full of uninteresting things.  In the service of that goal, while in Paris we spent a total of an hour at the Louvre and Musee d’Orsay combined when the kids were 5, 8, and 11.  We hit the highest of the highlights at each, then continued our quest to determine which was the best playground in Paris.  They thought it was very cool that they’d been to the Louvre, and they continue to enjoy art museums; I think we managed to create very positive associations and experiences with our approach.  While I would have loved to spend much more time at the Louvre (and many other places), I just tell myself that I will be back there, and I’ll look at my leisure.

Second, give a little pep talk/prep talk about the way people behave in museums and why we should all follow particular rules there.  People don’t get too close to the art because it could be damaged and much of it is very old and there aren’t any more like it.  We can’t touch the art because everyone’s fingertips have a little bit of oil on them all the time and if the thousands and millions of people (over the years) who have looked at the art had touched it, it would be a big blur and the paint could even start to come off.  (Think of a mirror touched over and over, and how the fingerprints build up).  People definitely use their inside voices in museums because often many people are there, and if everyone speaks quietly each person can have conversations within their own group. There are guards there to make sure no one hurts any of the art, and they can also answer questions about where things are in the museum.

Third, keep your visit brief. You know how long your children are likely to be engaged, so don’t push it.  This brings up one of the truly beautiful things about living in Washington–free museums!  We have the luxury to pop into a world class museum, look at a few works, and leave.  I would love to experience all museums that way–no pressure to get your $20 worth!–but alas, that’s not the way of most of the world.  You may want to avoid special exhibitions that require paid tickets, unless you’re OK with breezing through according to your child’s interest.  This can change as they get older and especially if there’s a connection with anything they’ve studied in school or seen in a movie.  But for toddlers, I’d go with meandering in the permanent collection.

Fourth, end the visit with a treat. Some may call it bribery, but since I’m usually ready for coffee or some kind of sustenance after looking at a few things, I just call it reasonable.  At the National Gallery, we always, always get gelato in the cafe downstairs after looking around.  When the children were very young, I did phrase it as a bribe:  “Let’s go and look in a few rooms, and then we can get some of that yummy gelato!”  Sometimes the kids would even suggest that we go to the National Gallery.  They would look at some art with me, but they really wanted that gelato.  And that worked for me.

Laurie Gillman, CHAW Development Director