Another Monday. Time to reflect on the excitement of the past weekend. With two children and a background in everything museum related, I usually find some time to incorporate a museum visit into our weekend plans. I'm lucky; my children are still at an age where anything that I'm interested in is also interesting to them--as long as I give it the proper level of preschool enthusiasm.
Up to this point, we've been advocates of science and natural history museums. Generally, these institutions are kid friendly and are well-equipped to accommodate families; after all, what six year old isn't fascinated by dinosaurs, pandas, butterflies, or volcanoes? It's also much easier for a parent to engage a child when the subject matter is familiar: nature is all around us, and most of us can riff on topics like weather, habitats, and the stars even without having a formal education in biology or astronomy: it just part of our collective understanding.
Art, however, is something entirely different. What does a parent with no training in art history say about a Matisse? "Oh, look at the pretty colors?" Well, yes. I found in visiting art museums with children, that you need to talk to them on their level. What would a child see in such a work? Color, shapes, lines, people, places, animals? Engage them in a way they understand (depending on the age of the child).
The last time we visited a major art museum, we kept the visit short--under an hour--and did our best to pick out paintings that had animals in them. It was a scavenger hunt; we were on the prowl for lions (a no brainer in the Rubens gallery), cats (perfect for Baroque Dutch art), and dogs (apparently ubiquitous in 18th-century landscapes and equestrian images). I stopped myself from postulating on theory and symbolism and instead stuck to the basics. This way we were just discovering things together rather than setting up a standard teacher-student paradigm. (Of course, I couldn't resist a couple of "Did you knows . . .")
Just as important was to have fun looking in these beautiful galleries; museum manners must always be followed, but excitement and enthusiasm shouldn't stifled, even within hallowed museum walls.
Art museums can indeed be just as engaging as natural history and science centers, but if you're not feeling confident about your own ability to talk about art with children, most museums have family guides or special kids tours that really do a good job of dissecting works of art.
As the dynamics of American families change so too do the museums that serve them. And at SITES, we're keeping pace with those changes, creating exhibition-related materials that can be used by parents, teachers, and care givers alike. Check out a complete list of our curriculum/parent materials, and don't forget to take advantage of all the family-friendly resources available through the Smithsonian Center of Education and Museum Studies.