Museum programs get the whole family into the act

"How can we find out what life was like back in ancient Egypt?" the art museum instructor asks as wide-eyed children and their parents gather around the feet of stately King Mycerinus to study the statue.

"He's wearing a skirt," a child shouts.

"Right, a loincloth. It must have been very warm where he lived."

It's Tuesday at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and Family Fare -- a new workshop designed for the whole family -- is in progress.

Family Fare is part of a new trend in parent-child programs which are livening many of the country's once-staid museums. Children, parents, an grandparents can be found knee-deep in cardboard and crayons, pooling their imaginations to create stories, comic strips, and even grant sculptures.

Museums want to stimulate the whole family's interest in art by actively involving them in exploring the museum -- not only obseving art objects but learning how they were used and what meanings they hold.

At one of Boston's recen Family Fare programs, families were told to pretend they were investigative reporters for a make-believe newspaper, The Nile Chronicle.

Each family was given a headline. Then they wandered through the galleries scrutinizing every mummy case, kerma bed, and carnelian bead in hopes of uncovering clues for their news stories.

The Carlos Aristegui family wrote about the newest craze -- draped clothing -- for their story: "Latest Fashions Along the Nile."

BEth Jacobson and her children, Eric and Scott, interviewed a mummy. Did he know the whereabouts of the Queen's stolen ncklace? The mummy chose to remain silent.

And off in one corner a child was busy showing her mother hieroglyphics on a 16th Dynasty Egyptian tomb. "there's a cow," she exuberantly decided. The story she was writing, entitled "New Zoo Opening Soon Near the River," was almost complete.

"The whole emphasis of the program is to get people to participate," explains Cindy Stone, educational supervisor for children's programs at the museum. "Family Fare is a 'doing program,' involving integrated art approaches with creative movement, poetry, and theater."

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York offers family-oriented programs all year. Its daily Gallery Walks include explanations of that day's theme gallery, followed by discussions and related art projects with an instructor-guide.

Seattle's Museum of History and Industry offers a History Through Crafts program for 7-to-12-years-olds throughout the year, and special Summer Fun workshops.

One week, families may listen to Northwest coast Indian stories and then act out some of the legends they have just heard. Another week they may make puppets or learn Oriental history through calligraphy.

"We're trying to get children used to other cultures," says Lois Bark, director of education at the museum.

Recently, San Francisco's Museum of Art had a Shoe-In. "It was a very large, one-day event for the whole family," Bob Whyte, director of education, says.

The special event was "tied" into an exhibition by Philip Guston, who uses "shoe images" in many of his works. "We had families actually making shoes with staples an glue," Mr. Whyte says.

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