I once complained that my childhood included being dragged through every art museum in Europe. While I appreciate the experiences in hindsight, I was most ungrateful as a child. Here are five tips I’ve learned over the years to help kids of all ages — including adults — appreciate art museums.
When you pair my Mom’s art degree with the opportunity to live in Europe, you get a childhood full of visits to art museums.
While I usually enjoyed:
- sculptures like Rodin’s The Thinker and Michelangelo’s David,
- Impressionist artists, especially Claude Monet, and
- Post-Impressionists like Vincent Van Gogh.
I was not a fan of:
- dark paintings like Rembrandt’s Night Watch,
- bloody paintings like war scenes, animal hunts, and some religious works,
- anything by Peter Paul Rubens or Francisco Goya
- scary things like mummies and catacombs.
Seriously, those things *still* freak me out as an adult!
Because my Mom is my biggest fan and reads each of my posts, let me pause here and publicly say THANK YOU!
I may not have recognized it at the time nor been particularly cooperative at every art museum as a child, but by continuing to expose me to a variety of art in various ways, she gave me incredible experiences that I finally started to appreciate as a young adult.
Plus also, it’s helped me a ton when playing Trivia Crack.
Fast-forward to now. I’m not just the daughter of an artist, but also the mother of an artist. While my contribution to the art world has been limited to serving as the vessel that passed incredible talent from one generation to the next, here are five things this regular, old Mom accidentally and unintentionally did to help her kids enjoy art museums.
1 – Let your kids set the pace
I’m not suggesting that you skip a gallery that is important to you if Junior’s not into it, nor am I suggesting that Sweet Pea be allowed to run through the museum and yell, “Done!” But you can borrow a page from a museum exhibit designer’s playbook to engage your kids in the exhibits that don’t immediately grab their attention and alter your pace through each museum exhibit based upon your collective interests.
Museum exhibit designers classify visitors into three types: streakers, strollers, and studiers. They work hard to ensure that every exhibit has something for all three visitor types, working hard to slow streakers down to strollers and strollers down to studiers.
Streakers are usually at the museum because someone else in their entourage wanted to visit or because it was an included stop with a tour. They tend to glance at a few pieces, but their hearts are generally not into the experience. When it comes to designing exhibits, museum professionals hope to catch a streaker’s attention but recognize that their hard work is largely going to be lost on this group of guests.
On a recent visit to Cincinnati, Charlotte wanted to explore a special Shakespeare exhibit at the Cincinnati Museum Center while Louise wrinkled her nose. I would have expected Louise to gloomily saunter about while her big sister absorbed the exhibit, but the designer did a fantastic job making Shakespeare appealing to children, and it wasn’t long before Louise was engaged in the exhibit, completing a Mad Lib sonnet and acting out a scene from a Midsummer Night’s Dream on the stage. I didn’t care that she overlooked other parts of the experience because she found something that appealed to her and was learning about one of the world’s most famous writers whether she realized it, or not.
A stroller is someone with a moderate interest in the topic, region, or other aspects of the exhibit. They are the museum equivalent of someone who picks up a magazine and casually flips through the pages looking at the photos, reading the captions, and skimming the articles until they stop and read a piece fully.
Like most, our family’s default mode is stroller, but one or more of us can switch to studier or streaker at any time. The good thing about having older children is that they can work their way through an exhibit at their own pace — streaking, strolling, or studying as the exhibit engages them — while we stay together room-by-room. I’ve also found that this mode often results in us collectively experiencing more as each of us is drawn to a different aspect of the exhibit that we are excited to circle back and share our discovery with the others.
Studiers will carefully absorb every detail of an exhibit, from reading every word on the signage to studying each piece on display. While these visitors are a museum professional’s preferred audience, they are actually a very small percentage of the population.
Even beyond art museums, my Mom is a studier. She will fully absorb every exhibit of every type in any location. Her constant thirst to learn has kept her mind sharp and is why she has always been a fascinating person to spend time with. It also means that if the rest of us are strolling or streaking, we tend to slow down and more fully absorb the museum thanks to the example set by my Mom.
2 – Read about the artists
For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved biographies. When it comes to literature, I often find the writer’s life story so much more fascinating than his or her literary works. (Yes, Ernest Hemingway, I’m talking about you!) Even watching a television show or movie requires me to simultaneously Google the actors and learn all I can about their lives. Before visiting an art museum, find ways to expose your children to one of the artists as a person.
Here are some recommendations that have worked well for us over the years:
The book recommendations below are affiliate links. There is no additional cost to you, but if you chose to click one of these links and make a purchase, I will receive a teeny, tiny commission that helps me maintain Everyday Wanderer.
Anholt’s Artists Books for Children Series
Ideal for younger children (ages 4 to 8), this series features Vincent van Gogh, Leonardo da Vinci, Edgar Degas, and others in short stories with beautiful illustrations. While she’s now 11, Louise’s favorite was Degas and the Little Dancer.
James Mayhew’s Katie Series
Also geared toward younger children (ages 4 to 8) James Mayhew’s Katie series is another way to introduce elementary school children to famous artists and their works. One of our favorites in the series was Katie and the Mona Lisa.
Making Art Fun Website
For slightly older children (ages 8 to 12), check out the Making Art Fun website’s artist index offers two-page bios for more than 25 legendary artists, from painters to sculptors to cartoonists. In addition to artist biographies, the site also offers “learn to” and other lesson guides in its Lesson Zone.
Pro Tip: Beyond artists, the site features biographies for many other famous people, organized by time period and contribution.
What Makes a ____ a ____?
Published by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, this series is another great resource for older elementary and middle school kids. Because we’re preparing to visit Through the Eyes of Picasso at the Nelson-Atkins here in Kansas City, I recommend What Makes a Picasso a Picasso?
Fun Fact: The series also includes What Makes a Goya a Goya? but it’s probably too gory for me.
Museum Guides for Kids (but also Adults)
For middle and high school students as well as adults, check out this series. Since we recently visited Crystal Bridges in Bentonville, the American Art guide is top of mind.
3 – Leverage art museum guides for kids
Many art museums have scavenger hunts, workbooks, and other programs to help engage their younger visitors. Focusing on the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art here in Kansas City, there are several options:
Downloadable Scavenger Hunt
Download this ten-page scavenger hunt workbook that focuses kids on key galleries inside the museum as well as the sculpture park outside the museum.
KC Parent Scavenger Hunt
Pro Tip: If you’re visiting an art museum that doesn’t have a program like this, visit the museum’s website before your visit and find a few pieces that appeal to your child. Print them out in advance and let your child search for them during your visit to the museum.
4 – Help connect the dots
Help your children connect the dots between what they see at the museum and the world around them. Find ways to connect the art they’re seeing to something else they’ve seen or studied.
- Charlotte saw a set of Charley Harper’s notecards in a stationery store and recognized him as the artist behind the Homecoming (Blue Birds) mural in Cincinnati
- Standing under Maman, the 30-foot tall spider in the courtyard at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Louise immediately linked it to a smaller spider sculpture by the same artist that sits in front of the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art here in Kansas City.
- A painting of the Chicago Exposition at Crystal Bridges caught my eye and converted me from a stroller to a studier as I connected it to book Devil in the White City that I finished last year.
- And all of us were excited to learn that Moshe Safdie, the architect behind the gorgeous Crystal Bridges Museum also designed the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts here at home
5 – Let their interests influence yours
While I’m still not a big fan of mummies, coffins, and burial masks, Louise is fascinated by these objects. Lucky for us, the Nelson-Atkins just added to its collection. It’s easy to spend time in a gallery that excites your kids, even if it’s not your cup of tea. After all, my excitement that she is interested in ancient civilizations and going to an art museum with me overrides the creepiness I feel exploring these galleries.
Now if she wants to see Saturn Devouring His Son by Goya, I may ask my Mom to take her…
What about you? Do you have any tried and true techniques that have helped your children appreciate art museums? If so, I’d love to hear from you in the comments section below.
Don’t just take my word for it! Here is what other bloggers have said about visiting art museums with children:
- Dr. Jessie Voigts who blogs at Wandering Educators is an avid art museum traveler with seven tried and true tips that have instilled a similar passion for art museums in her daughter.
- Rossi who blogs at Rossi Writes says that “visiting art and history museums with a small child may seem like the perfect recipe for a disaster,” but she has lots of practical tips that keep disasters at bay.
- The National Endowment for the Arts published this great piece full of advice from art educators at museums from across the country.