Museums' Message to Families: Question, Imagine, Touch

By Campbell, Karen | The Christian Science Monitor, November 12, 2002 | Go to article overview

Museums' Message to Families: Question, Imagine, Touch


Campbell, Karen, The Christian Science Monitor


For adults who weren't exposed to much art when they were children, a visit to a major museum can be a little overwhelming - the maze of rooms off each hallowed hall, the myriad styles and genres spanning centuries of tumultuous history, the hushed tones that signal we are in the presence of greatness. We know just enough to realize how little we really know.

Some parents unconsciously project a lack of comfort to children, delaying or even tainting that first art experience. Others may simply leave art appreciation in the hands of their children's teachers.

In response, more museums are courting families, educating and nurturing two generations of patrons at once.

"Introducing people to art at an early age develops a lifelong interest," says Jean Sousa, associate director of interpretive exhibitions and family programs at The Art Institute of Chicago.

"The key for us is making art accessible across the board and helping families to form relationships between art and their daily lives."

Natural curiosity

Many educators believe that in viewing a work of art it is as important to engage the imagination as the eye. Children have a natural curiosity, and lively discussions can occur when art calls to mind as many questions as answers: What would this painting sound like? Where would you like to be if you were in this painting? How do you think the artist created this texture?

Lucy Micklethwait, author of "Discover Great Paintings," encourages children to approach a painting as if it were an unsolved mystery.

"You can be the detective who figures out just what is going on. Look at the evidence and ask yourself questions about it," she writes. What does a work of art do? Does it tell a story? Portray a person? Record a scene? Or is it simply decorative?

Too much information?

Biographical and other factual information culled from accompanying labels can be helpful, but only in limited quantities. Children are ultimately less impressed with how important a painting is or who it is by than by how it makes them feel.

That's the honest, instinctive, and refreshingly unbiased reaction many of us adults have squashed after years of being told what to think. Rather than demystifying art with concrete information, many educators recommend leaving ample room for direct emotional responses.

"The world of art has a different meaning for children.... For them, art is about their life experiences," writes Nancy Beal, author of "The Art of Teaching Art to Children."

What museums are doing

The easiest place for parents to start is with a "Family Day."

Museums host activities ranging from hands-on art projects to performances and films. Some have programs on certain days on a smaller scale, and many, such as Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, have regular drop-in activities that combine appreciation with artmaking. …

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