If you could design your own art museum from the ground up, what would it be like? What artists would have work in it? What would you tell visitors as they walked through and admired your collection? How would you teach your children to look at the art?
These may be uncomfortable questions. You may not think you know enough about art to properly visit an art museum, let alone create one of your own. Or perhaps there doesn’t seem to be a vocabulary for explaining your taste or aesthetic sense. Heck, you’re not even sure you have an aesthetic sense. And explain the art you like to your children? No way.
But before you decide that art museums are like the kale of your traveling and parenting life – you know they’re good for you and everyone else says they are pleasurable and virtuous though you remain convinced otherwise – I’d like to introduce you to someone who might change your mind.
Meet Dr. Albert C. Barnes
Born in the second half of the nineteenth century to a Civil War veteran, Albert C. Barnes grew up poor in the Frankford section of Philadelphia. Scientific brilliance and precocity brought him an early degree at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine; the patenting and sale of Argyrol, a silver compound that was a precursor to modern antibiotics made him wealthy enough to collect art. This he did with an astute eye, amassing one of the most important collections of post-Impressionist and early modern art in the world.
But his newfound wealth didn’t gain him acceptance with the upper echelons of Philadelphia society. Stung by their rejection, Dr. Barnes decided that he would control who could look at his paintings. He would house his collection in the way he saw fit and use it to teach others about art. The Barnes Foundation was born.
You won’t get far into The Barnes Foundation without encountering Dr. Barnes. His presence looms large not only in the portrait that greets visitors as they enter the collection but in the imaginations of everyone who works at the foundation. Even the bartender who serves beverages during the lovely social hour that The Barnes hosts in its lobby on Friday evenings told me that “orange was Dr. Barnes’ favorite color” when I commented that I liked the logo on the napkins.
It’s almost as if he’s about to walk in the door.
And in fact, there’s a reason the collection feels that way. Everything in it is displayed exactly as it was on the morning in 1951 when Dr. Barnes died, suddenly, in a car accident on his way to work. Under the conditions of his will, no art from the collection is loaned out and none from other museums brought in. For many years after his death the collection hung outside of Philadelphia in the original building constructed for it on a quiet tree-lined street in suburban Merion.
In 2012, after a long legal battle, the trustees of the Foundation successfully brought the collection to an award-winning, sustainable, and sleekly modern building near the Philadelphia Art Museum.
There is little about the exterior or lobby of the new Barnes Foundation that recalls the old. But that changes as soon as visitors walk into the rooms where the art is displayed. The collection was measured using lasers and hangs in rooms of the exact shape and size, in the exact locations, as in Merion. I have visited both places and daresay that Dr. Barnes himself would be pleased, especially since ten times the number of school children alone now see the paintings every year.
What’s different about The Barnes Foundation?
There’s one way that The Barnes Foundation is not different from major art museums: The paintings are impressive and are hung with care. Since many of the paintings Dr. Barnes collected were by modernists whose names have become familiar in popular culture, there are sure to artists you recognize like Renoir, Monet, Manet, Van Gogh, and Matisse.
But that’s where the similarity with typical art museums ends. You won’t find plaques that offer historical context or the date of the artwork. There is no information on the walls themselves that tells visitors how to interpret the art or what the meaning might be in any of it.
Look around and you’ll notice that the paintings here don’t seem to be hung according to when they were painted or by the style or school of painting (although there are large groupings of works by the same artist because Dr. Barnes had some definite favorites).
Look further and you’ll notice that the paintings are surrounded by interesting objects – pieces of metalwork, keys, andirons, pottery, even doorknobs. These anonymous objects are displayed around the paintings in symmetrical displays.
What’s going on here?
Using the four principals that any artist applies – line, light, space, and color – Dr. Barnes created what he called “ensembles” or careful groupings, many of them symmetrical, of art and objects. As a viewer you are invited to make connections that have nothing to do with the artist, the time period, or even the subject matter but with these key artistic principals.
Since anyone can identify lines or colors – and since it’s pretty easy to remember these four principals – this is a democratic way to display art that invites visitors to tap into their innate artistic knowledge with no specialized experience or information.
The goal of The Barnes Foundation is for visitors to be an active and participatory experience. The rationale behind the foundation is to see as the artists sees.
Exceptional interactive materials for kids
Given this approach, it may not surprise you to hear that The Barnes is a wonderful place to bring children. For one thing, they can focus on the art without the distraction of words (or adults who are assiduously reading instead of asking and answering questions).
Better still, The Barnes Foundation has a great collection of tools that are designed to help any family see and appreciate the collection together. A family-friendly iPod audio tour leads you around the collection, revealing and explaining Dr. Barnes’ philosophy and idea of ensembles. The tour is full of riddles and questions that are designed to keep kids engaged and interested in looking at the art.
The audio tour is accompanied by an Art See Gallery Kit; both are free with the price of admission to the museum. The kit offers beautiful reproductions of some of the paintings in the collection (you may want to hang these up in your child’s room at home after your visit) along with information about the artists, observations about the paintings, questions and things to look for in the ensembles, at-home activities, and a riddle game that kids can play while they are exploring. It’s just about the most impressive set of museum materials I’ve ever seen, as pleasing as the collection that inspired it.
“Every child is a collector or curator – they have innate connoisseurship. The materials given to kids at The Barnes are meant to tap into that. The idea is to encourage observation, critical thinking, and a sense of humor,” says Lynn Berkowitz, director of Family and Community Programs at The Barnes Foundation.
One nice thing about the kid-friendly audio tour is that it has a relatively broad appeal. I visited with my 9- and 12-year-old sons and a 13-year-old family friend who loves to paint and draw. The youngest in our group thought the audio guide was cute and funny because it included narration from an actor playing Dr. Barnes’ dog (with a heavy French accent) and had riddles scattered throughout.
While these touches might have been a bit juvenile for the older kids, there was enough serious information provided to keep them engaged and interested. And all of them liked having copies of the paintings to take out and look at both during and after our visit.
The family tour focuses on the ensembles created by Dr. Barnes, and it encourages kids to make guesses as to why the paintings and surrounding decorative arts were put together the way they were. By continually referring to the principles of light, line, color, and space, with the added bonus of shape thrown in for good measure, the tour also gives parents an easy vocabulary for understanding and talking about the art with their kids, even if they haven’t spent much time in art museums themselves.
There are of course lots of paintings in the collection that aren’t included in the audio tour. On our visit I supplemented the tour by inviting the children to each pick out their favorite painting or ensemble and to talk about why they liked it. I made sure we stopped in a few rooms that weren’t on the tour so that we had some time when we were looking at the art and discussing it without headphones on. The language and questions on the tour cards were often applicable to other paintings, especially since there are often multiple works by the same artist.
Another nice feature in each room are laminated cards that do offer information about each of the artworks. When the kids had questions about the artist or when the painting was completed, we looked the information up on the card. They soon learned they could do this and would seek out the cards as we entered a new room.
Everyone can see like an artist
Remember those questions I asked at the beginning of this post? While you may not be starting your own art museum any time soon, a visit to The Barnes Foundation will show you how to appreciate your own instincts as a creator and collector. Better still, it will give you a visual and verbal vocabulary to look at and discuss art with your children. And who knows where that inspiration will lead?
Many thanks to The Barnes Foundation for hosting me twice as well as my family and friends. You can always count on me to say when I’ve gotten something for free and to share my honest opinions.
- Tickets to see The Barnes Foundation are timed and it’s a good idea to get them online or by phone in advance so you can be sure to get an entry time that works for you.
- The Barnes offers free drop-in family programs that invite you and your children to make art. Time your visit to coincide with one of these programs and extend your child’s inspiration.
- Through September 22, 2014, The Barnes is also displaying a separate exhibition of Paul Cezanne’s still-life paintings. Visit the exhibit and then use a special Cezanne-themed Art See Gallery Kit to view his paintings in the regular collection.
- I was really lucky: Three weeks before I brought children to The Barnes Foundation, I took a docent-led tour with a group of fellow travel bloggers as part of a moms-only Philadelphia weekend. It was recent enough that I could easily remember many of the facts I learned about Dr. Barnes and the collection; I was able to handily supplement the audio tour for this reason. If you have a chance to do the same, I’d highly recommend taking this approach. And if you can go on a Friday evening, all the better – the Foundation is open until 9 p.m. and drinks are served in the lobby. Visit on the first Friday of the month and enjoy live music.
- The Rodin Museum across the street from The Barnes has a lovely garden and some statues (including The Thinker, which many children will recognize). It’s the perfect spot for kids to get their wiggles out after your visit.
- There is 12-hour metered street parking around The Barnes; I was able to find a space across the street at midday on a summer Wednesday easily. The meters accept credit cards.
- If you’re looking for a kid-friendly lunch or snack, there is a Whole Foods directly across the street from the Foundation – on a nice day you could buy lunch and eat it in the lovely garden of the Rodin Museum. Other options include my family’s favorite bakery/restaurant chain Le Pain Quotidien, which has artisanal sandwiches, frittatas, and pastries. It’s located across the street from The Barnes and next door to Pizzeria Vetri, which I have on authority from no less than Elizabeth Gilbert as being a great place to enjoy pizza in Philadelphia.