You might suppose that taking children to an art museum would be very different from making it an adults’ outing. And to an extent you would be right. But in another sense, it needn’t be so very different at all. I recently accompanied my daughter and her children, ages 3 and 5, to the St. Louis Art Museum. Although it’s not nearly as expansive or renowned as the Louvre, which I visited in my last blog, its excellent collection is closer to home, less crowded, and much more manageable on a short visit.
Our primary goal was to show the children what an art museum was all about. Our secondary goal was two-fold—to begin exposing the children to great art and to nourish our more informed adult tastes with food for our own artistic creativity and growth.
First on the agenda was to review rules of museum etiquette with the children—soft voices, no running, stay behind the barriers, look but don’t touch, and stay with the grownups. “This is gonna be such fun!” my three-year-old granddaughter declared happily as we entered the large entry hall. When her older brother said he wanted to see a dinosaur painting we tried to explain that, though some of the paintings were very old, he probably wouldn’t see any depicting dinosaurs. At that he became interested in seeing some of those “very old” paintings.
Our approach was to get an overview of most of the museum’s major collections and (for future reference) to see what appealed to the children. We knew we couldn’t cover it all before the children became tired or hungry and would no longer enjoy the visit, so we began by walking through the halls of European realistic work, which we felt would seem familiar and therefore most comfortable to the children.
My five-year-old grandson had picked up a booklet at the information desk and began looking for the art illustrated in its suggested children’s treasure hunt. He happily accompanied us through rooms of neo-classicism, impressionism, and post-impressionism, and eventually pointed out an abstract painting that matched one in his booklet. It was by an artist his mother particularly favored, so she took the opportunity to discuss it a bit. Then he was anxious to find some of the “really old” art, so he led the way downstairs to find the Egyptian collections.
Meanwhile, the children felt free to express their emotional responses to the works we passed, whether something was of particular interest or whether sculptures seemed “scary” or aboriginal masks looked “weird.” Such comments gave us the opportunity to tell the children about the backgrounds or purpose for those pieces, simultaneously affirming their feelings about the art and gently exposing them to unfamiliar cultures.
We let the children’s interests guide us. Grandson discovered a room of arms and armor, admiring various types of swords, daggers, and guns on display. His sister enjoyed the ceramics displays, with their colorful glazes and painted bowls. In the Egyptian room, he was curious about the painted mummy cases and what might be inside; while she was intrigued by sculptures of a black cat and an aqua-glazed hippopotamus. Together they mused about the variety of chair designs on display and discussed with us whether a honeycomb paper chair would be strong enough to hold someone’s weight. Meanwhile, Grandson continued to identify and check off illustrations in his treasure hunt booklet.
The kids took turns pressing elevator buttons to take us to an upper floor that housed collections of work by American artists. The children were well behaved, and showed interest in the native American beadwork and textiles, but after an hour and a half both children were getting restless as they neared the end of their attention span. So we moved them quickly through the galleries to complete our overview of that area. When one correctly pointed out that “We’ve already seen this room,” we knew it was a good time to wrap up our visit and find them some lunch.
So although the approach with children along might have been different from usual, the principles of perusal were the same: We found key pieces of interest to focus on; we focused on them briefly and then moved on to something of fresh interest; and when someone became restless, we changed gears and eventually called it a day with plans to return another time.
The old show biz motto holds just as true with art museums: “Leave them wanting more!”