Museums' message to families: question, imagine, touch

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.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art hosts "Meet the Artist: Open Studios," which gives children ages 6 to 12 the chance to hear about what inspires local artists and to see the techniques they use.

Most museums of any significant size offer a range of self-guided family tours based on themes or the current special exhibit.

The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis puts together WAC Packs, kid-sized backpacks filled with activity sheets to guide them through the galleries and outdoor sculpture garden.

Some museums make a game of touring the galleries, letting families explore at their own pace.

In variety and scope, The Art Institute of Chicago has one of the oldest and most impressive art-education programs in the country. Its Kraft Education Center hosts daily workshops, demonstrations, exhibitions, storytelling, games, performances, and art projects for families.

The Art Institute's "When I Grow Up" guide takes visitors to a self-portrait of Van Gogh and asks, "Which part of the painting is most interesting to you? How has the artist painted that area to attract your eye? If you painted a picture of yourself, what would you include in the painting?"

The "Family Self-Guides" include places in each booklet for kids to do their own drawing in response to some of the works they see.

One recent program, the innovative "Looking at Art Together," offered workshops by educators and child psychologists to help parents and other caregivers introduce children to art. A parent guide that's in the works will show how to approach the museum experience with children of different age groups.

Never too late

The world of art is extraordinarily rich, and museums are working hard to be stimulating, interactive environments.

"If you start looking at art when you're young, you grow up with art, and every time you see a painting or a sculpture it's a different experience," Ms. Sousa says. "You're seeing a different work of art each time because you're a different person. As a 5-year-old, you may see things as shapes and colors, but as you grow up, you see through other filters. Art provides that opportunity for multiple levels of experience."

So take heart. It's never to late to look at art with the eyes of a child.

What to look for

Children and adults can make their museum visits more interesting by considering the following aspects of a work of art:

• Content

• Colors

• Light and shadow

• Texture

• Perspective

• Representational vs. abstract

• Mood and feeling

• Lines and shapes

• Details

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