A Trip to the Museum
There should be nothing intimidating about art, so there should be nothing difficult about taking kids to a museum, right? Wrong! There's a long list of reasons it's a daunting outing. Take them to the circus? sure! Baseball game? no problem! Why even the Marshfield Fair seems easy in comparison to a quick trip to the MFA- which is why museum visits are declining. Let's reverse that curse by sharing some do's and don'ts about kids + museums. We went to our favorite culture-vulture Betty for training, she really knows this stuff…
The most important thing? Do make it fun- not an educational experience otherwise museums will forever represent a torture. If the first few trips are just a quick romp, then so be it.
Do research it before hand—for you. Things like parking, hours, the cafe, where to sit down- the less stressed you are, the less stressed the kids are.
Don't try to see everything or to do too much, especially in a large museum. Choose a wing or a gallery or a single exhibit that has appeal to kids. While it is tempting to make them “take a walk through art history” and start in the Renaissance, those are deadly boring paintings for children. Go for the big juicy items like samurai weaponry, or Egyptian sculpture and nothing else. Make them want to come back for more.
Do eat, at least once. It doesn't have to be a big meal, just a snack or a drink. Forget healthy food. This is the time for lattes, chocolate and sugary snacks. Otherwise forbidden treats are a great way to bribe pace yourselves and offer little rewards along the way. Plus museum cafes are great places to people watch.
Do go to the gift shops and let them buy something really cool. It may be outright bribery but kids can often absorb just as much about art at the gift shop where they can pick up items, look at them, and play with them. It's a way of including art in their lives even if it's a toy.
Do not be an art snob. Your taste in art may not appeal to your children. Take them to a variety of exhibits and if they're not interested, don’t push it. Find something else that interests them—even if it's the escalator [there are staircases that have been the best part of museums for me…]
Don’t quiz them. Don’t point out dates or styles or names of artists etc unless they show a particular interest or ask. Let them stop naturally in front of what appeals to them and then say "Oh I love that color in the corner". Or "look at that tiger" etc. Then ask what they like best and MOVE ON, do not beat a dead horse. They are building a visual vocabulary and that takes time to absorb.
After a few times to the museum you can start to compare things. "Oh that painting reminds me of xxx." Or "this museum building is so much different than the other". Or "I love the ice cream here—much better than x". As time goes on you'll hear your kids start to compare paintings, compare the weapons of different eras and cultures, etc.
Do ask them what their favorite painting, or exhibit, or artist was, and let them choose that postcard to buy. Was it the colors or the subject matter or what that appealed to them? This is NOT to quiz them on art appreciation—it's to give you clues as to what they like, so you can plan the next outing.
Eventually your kids will start to guide you. Pick up a map in the entrance and let them figure out where to go. If you get sidetracked along the way -GREAT! See that as a victory and not a defeat. Connecting kids to art is connecting them to shared experience of humanity. Consider your work done if you can communicate that.
Which brings me to what age is the best time to start? Probably around 4-5, when then can behave in public, when they're up to a trip that will probably take 3 hours including transportation, and around the time that they're starting to read. For a very few it may be earlier, for many more it will be later. But give it a try around 4 or 5 and see how it goes. If they absolutely hate it, then wait. If they disturb other people in the museum, then definitely wait. If they are rambunctious, then take them to outdoor exhibits in the beginning like big sculpture parks or open museums [like the DeCordova, or Mass Moca]. Certainly by age 8 or 9 you can try them.
Do let them get excited and run around—a little. But tell them how important it is not to touch the paintings. Even a touch of the tiny bit of grease on their fingertip can cause a chemical reaction that can start to wear away the paint on a piece that has been hanging for millions of people to see for years. Let them know how long it takes to make such an artwork—or how many people worked on it—and how it was carefully transported to the museum and how dozens of people had to hang it etc. There is a back story of hundreds and hundreds of people that have guarded and tended these works forever- respect is a big thing to teach them. Art is our heritage and has to be safeguarded. Art is what humans do and how they express themselves and preserving that legacy is a responsibility.
Do make it a continuous experience—not just a one-off trip to the moon.* It's something that the whole family can learn to love and something that you can do together all of your life. While my family loves art now, I had to nurture that interest in them slowly, a dance that took about 10 years. One of my crowning achievements came when my two teenaged sons wanted to stay much longer at the Man Ray exhibit than I wanted to. I sulked, had a little sugar meltdown, and told them to meet me in the gift shop when they were done.
* A few of this Bettys favorite museums?
The DeCordova Sculpture Park and Museum- Lincoln, MA. First, there's an outdoor sculpture park- a perfect starter venue for kids. Beautiful grounds and great sculptures. Second, the museum has great, small exhibits, perfect size. Third, they always have a "process gallery" where kids [and you!] get background information on the art, how it's made, and what inspired the artist. Last but never least- a good cafe and a great gift shop.
The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art- Amhurst MA. Yes, it's a daytrip, but how can you pass it up? It's not just "The Hungry Caterpillar" art, this museum features the work of many illustrators from many countries. Check out their virtual tour online.
The Museum of Fine Arts- Boston. The building in itself is worth the trip. Take Bettys advice and choose just one gallery or exhibit- the Japanese wing, the Egyptian funerary arts [read mummies] and the glorious Sargent murals are just a few. Great giftshop, great food from the basement cafe to the restaurants upstairs.
The ICA- Boston. Small museum, small interesting and provacative exhibits, a great video art collection that can be accessed from a bank of computers that look out on a view of the river....what's not to like? Add a great cafe and tiny but interesting gift shop. Done and done.