My mother was a visual artist who started taking me to art museums before I could talk, so it’s always felt perfectly natural to visit art museums with my own children. Tommy’s first visit to an art museum was when he was about two months old and we showed him the N.C. Wyeth illustrations for stories like Treasure Island at the Brandywine River Museum – Matt had him in a front-facing carrier, an I’ll never forget how he kicked his legs excitedly when we showed him the bright colors on those large canvases.
But if you didn’t grow up going to art museums, it can be intimidating or frustrating to take children to them. We’d all like to believe that our children will show a native interest in art, but the fact is that most of them need encouragement and help to enjoy it. You may worry that your kids will be bored or won’t behave well. But you can make visiting an art museum educational and fun for your entire family. Here are my top tips for making a trip to an art museum fun for you and the kids:
Don’t try to see everything. It’s great to have an ambitious agenda when you visit an art museum, especially a large one that’s far from your home and holds many classic works of art you think you “ought” to see. But the fact is that you’re better off choosing a limited portion of the museum to visit especially when you are there with children who won’t enjoy running from one piece of art to the next just because they are “supposed” to see them. I usually plan to limit art museum visits to two hours. It’s great if the visit lasts longer, but being realistic is one way to make sure your kids stay engaged.
Often the best way to see an art museum with children is to visit special exhibitions. These usually have a specific theme – either a certain style of art or the work of a specific artist or group of artists – that make them perfect opportunities for focused learning (We recently really enjoyed the exhibit Paris Through the Window: Marc Chagall and His Circle at the Philadelphia Museum of Art; it’s on view through July 10, 2011). It’s also great to visit smaller art museums with a more limited collection.
Do your research. Before you visit an art museum, take a look at the website to see what they have that’s of interest to you and your kids. You might mix up the types of art you look at, making sure to include something you know will interest the younger members of your family. Of course, it’s also OK if serendipity leads you into some parts of the museum you never expected to visit, but by having a plan you can make sure that you maximize your time. You can also use this as an opportunity to brush up on some facts about the art and artists that you can share with your children. And when you’re at the museum, read the panels near the art, and share aloud what you learn or think is interesting.
Make connections. Talk about what is familiar in the art you are exploring. Are there places or things the children have seen before? Are there children in the paintings? What are they reading or playing? How are their clothes different or the same? If it’s a family portrait, how are the family members interacting with each other? For example, the boys both really liked this painting by Marc Chagall because it showcases the Eiffel Tower, one of their favorite travel memories.
Talk about color and shape. If the paintings or sculpture you are exploring are more abstract, a great place to start a discussion is with the colors, shapes, and textures you see in the painting. You might ask children to choose their favorite color or shape and explain why they like it. Or maybe you want to ask why they think an artist used a certain color or if they notice similar colors in different works by a specific artist.
Play “I Spy.” Younger children love to look for hidden treasures in art museums (in fact, many museums now offer printed scavenger hunts for younger visitors). This can be a fun way to get children to notice smaller details.
Take it outside. Many museums have outdoor sculpture gardens where children can look at art and get their wiggles out at the same time.
Look at multiple works by a single artist. At the Chagall exhibit, Tommy and I had a great time picking out both the paintings and sculptures by Modigliani. He loved looking for the signature long faces and would crow with delight when he found them. We talked about what was the same (shapes) and what was different (colors) in the paintings. This can be a great exercise when a museum show work that a given artist did over a long period of time – ask children to think about how the art changes as the artist ages.
Share opinions. A game that can work especially well with abstract art that can be more challenging to discuss is to play a game developed by the staff at the Delaware Art Museum. Give everyone in your family four cards – one with a heart, one with a dollar sign, one with a house, and one that says “yuck”. Find a room that’s not too crowded and ask each person to put a card in front of the work of art that he or she loves the most, likes the least, would take home, and would buy. Once everyone has placed their cards, each person can explain the choices he or she made.
Take advantage of educational programs. Many art museums offer family-friendly tours with docents who are trained to teach children about art. Others offer art activities that invite children to look at art and then create their own based upon what they saw. On our visit to the Philadelphia Art Museum, we took advantage of both. On the tour, the docent chose specific paintings and spent a long time asking the children to pick out just what colors and shapes they saw in them.
Then when we were finished with the tour, the boys loved making paintings and collages that mirrored what they saw.
Know when to head for home. Most important of all: If the visit isn’t going well, and no one is having a good time, remember that it’s OK to leave. Visiting art museums with kids can be a valuable and enriching experience for everyone in your family, but sometimes children just aren’t in the mood to focus.
Whether you spend 30 minutes or an entire day at the museum, there’s always value in looking at art with your kids. I guarantee that you’ll be amazed at how much your children notice and how their experiences and way of seeing are different from your own.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Delaware Art Museum both offer excellent free family programming that my children have enjoyed. I’m sure you’ll find similar programs at many art museums near you.
Becoming a member of your local art museum not only lends support to a nearby cultural institution, it can save you money on family programs. Many museums have reciprocal relationships as well; we are members of the Delaware Art Museum but can visit the Philadelphia Museum of Art for free using our membership.
If you’d like to see more photos of recent visits to both the National Gallery in Washington, DC and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, I’ve shared some on The Mother of All Trips Facebook page. While you’re there, be sure to “like” The Mother of All Trips and stay up to date on discounts, special offers, and all our doings!
That picture with me and Matt in it is courtesy of Mark Gavin – could we look any prouder?