BY JULIE GREEN AND PAMELA LE KRISULEWICZ
The parents and children marched through the galleries, eyes straight ahead, not daring to talk or glance around the room. They had been told that “this is an art museum: stay in line and keep up with the group and no talking.” Because of the restrictions, they had missed it all: the art, the interaction, the excitement of discovery, the energy of an art museum.
How can a parent and child visit an art museum and have a rewarding experience? A museum visit can be educational and also a very pleasurable experience. Don’t forget that play is a child’s work, and there are methods to introduce “seeing” as a creative activity. The great French artist, Edgar Degas said, “It’s not what you see but what you help others to see.” He knew that looking and seeing are distinct activities and that truly seeing can be a fun and enlightening action game.
Make time to prepare yourself for your museum visit. Have the museum mail you their most current exhibition brochure. Sit down with your child, tell him about the exhibitions, then together decide which exhibitions you will visit at the museum.
Determine from the museum’s permanent exhibition information what are the “not to be missed” masterpieces in the permanent collection. It is important to become familiar with the masterpieces of the museum for a variety of reasons: they will usually be on view; since they are visually important—the exhibition text will explain the importance of the artwork—they will have a lot to say on many levels; and a work of art will grow with your child. The artwork will become an old friend, looked for, appreciated and perhaps introduced to the next generation of museum-goers by your child.
The Art Vocabulary
One goal of your museum visit is to help your child develop a vocabulary to describe what he sees, how it makes him feel, and why it makes him feel that way. You may describe a work of art as warm, scary, stark or soft. The interesting part of this exploration is understanding why you have responded in this way. The “whys” of this seeing activity have to do with visual literacy. Prior to your visit, use your time at home to reinforce the visual elements of art (line, shape, color, texture, and light) through playful exploration. For example, see how many kinds of lines you can draw: straight, wavy, curved, jagged. Straight lines have a stable effect, angular lines are energetic and can be menacing, wavy lines add movement and a calming effect.
Ask your child to draw a line. Together, take the line for a walk and when it meets itself, your child has made a shape. Name the geometric shapes. Explore free-form shapes. Look around the room and find colors that seem hot (red, orange and yellow) and cool (blues and greens).
Now that your eyes are warmed up and prepared to critically choose the dominant elements (line, shape, color, texture, and light) and everyone has an art vocabulary; you are ready to visit the museum.
Basic rules of etiquette apply in a museum as in any public building: walk, do not run; talk, but do not shout. There is also a special museum rule, “Do not touch the artwork unless invited to do so!” Why is this? Make a game out of it. Rub your fingers together and feel the oil. Make finger prints on a mirror. The point has been made that even clean hands leave prints from the oil that keeps our hands soft and extensible.
Museums are “user friendly” spaces and places of adventure. Have your “not to be missed” list handy. The information desk staff can give you their specific locations. While you are on your hunt let your child be the leader through the galleries, but keep an eye open for works that might fit a theme or focus that would interest your child. For example, you might have agreed ahead of time to look for paintings with animals, paintings that tell stories or works that use a concentration of “hot” colors or jagged lines.
Point out the label information. The label is there to tell us the title of the painting, artist, when he or she lived and the area of the world in which the work was created. It is fun to title the work yourself before you read the label. Avoid biographies or long history lectures. This will not fit into the open-ended adventure and discovery plan. Children learn a great deal by osmosis. One “close encounter” with a significant work of art that has leapt off the gallery walls and captured your child’s attention will teach them more than your five minute survey of French painting. Let your child tell you why he has stopped in front of the work, what he sees, what he does or does not like about it. (It’s OK not to like a work of art!) In genre paintings (works that tell a story) role playing is a favorite activity. Have your child tell you what the main character is thinking, or what the next action will be. Older children can describe a character in great detail: favorite book, music, how old they are, where they live, what they like to do on Saturday night, and something that they would never do.
How Long Should the Visit Be?
Most experts agree that parents tend to demand too long a visit from the young museum patrons. “Seeing” is an exhausting activity. Thirty to 45 minutes is ample time for pre-school to second grade children. For elementary to high school age children, the museum visit should not be any longer than an hour.
After the Museum Visit
Most experts recommend a visit to the art shop to choose one or two post cards. This is a nice reminder of the museum visit and is especially meaningful if the child is allowed to choose his own post card.
At home, discuss with your child what he liked best about the museum visit and the works the child would like to see again. This will provide you with information for your next museum tour.
If your child enjoys making art, provide materials; sponges, crayons, string, paint, etc. with which to create a “masterpiece” of his own. Ask your child if he would like to create an artwork similar to his “favorite” work in the museum. When he begins his artwork, remind your child that his work will be different because he has his own artistic vision. Remind your young artist of the decisions that an artist must make: width and direction of lines, choice of color, type of texture and when to stop work and announce that it is finished!!
Julie Green is the Coordinator of Volunteer and School Programs, and Pamela Lee Krisulewicz is Coordinator of the Institute for Teach Training at the High Museum in Atlanta.