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Children in Art Museums

Wednesday, February 25th, 2009

In my research in art museums many parents tell me they don’t feel comfortable taking children to the art museum. Their reasons vary. Some don’t feel knowledgeable enough about art and fear looking stupid. Others perceive there is nothing for children to do there and are concerned that either the children will damage something or be bored.

Most art museums offer a variety of enjoyable family programs and that are a good way to become familiar with the museum. Check the museum’s website for the family events schedule. Hint: Sometimes museuum websites hide the family programs under the “Education” tab. In addition, many art museums have interactive family galleries where everyone can have a hands-on, minds-on experience with art. Admittedly some art museums are more “family-friendly” than others but here are a few tips for getting the most out of a visit to any art museum.

1. Be curious. Let go of the idea that you need to be an expert. Children don’t worry about this, they just follow their interests. Keep in mind that typical visitor behavior in art museums is more like haphazard grazing than eating a full meal from start to finish, so let children “graze” according to their interests. Some interests will be momentary and others will be more sustained. Rather than feel you have to answer children’s questions, help them follow up on their own questions, ponder possibilities, and seek answers from someone at the museum, if possible, in books, and online.

2. Visit frequently. A trip to the art museum is not like a vaccination – once you’ve seen it you don’t need it again. Every time you go you discover something else, even if you look at the same art each time. A family museum membership is a good value and allows you to make many short visits, avoiding fatigue, and children wishing they were somewhere else. Visit often enough to feel comfortable there and learn your way around. Children like to feel an ownership of public institutions.

3. Plan ahead and be picky. Many visitors try to see the entire art museum in one visit. If you take repeated shorter visits then each visit can be focused on one part of the museum. Check on the museum’s website for exhibitions and collections on view. Let children participate in planning what to do. Explore the website further because many art museums, such as the Walters Art Museum, have special child-friend interactive sites.

Families in ArtSparks at the Speed Art Museum, Louisville, KY

4. Seek inspiration. Even if an art museum has no special family gallery or family programs when you visit, experience the museum as an artist might. Bring along sketchbooks (adults need to do this too) and color pencils. Most museums allow sketching in the galleries with pencils but check the policy. When you tire of standing and looking, find a place to sit and sketch. Some museums even allow you to sit on the floor but check that too. If there is a sculpture garden and the weather is nice, that’s a great place to sketch and maybe even have a snack – but remember, no food or drink in the museum galleries.

These are just a few ideas to get you started but there are many more. For example, Australian researcher, Katrina Weier, has good ideas for taking young children to the art museum. as does Erica Loop and Abby Margolis Newman.

The most important thing is to go, relax, and have a good time. So take your inner artist to an art museum!

Thanks for the great photos to Johnnie Utah, hoyasmeg at the High Museum of Art’s Greene Family Gallery in Atlanta, and the Speed Art Museum, ArtSparks in Louisville KY.

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