`Hands On' Masterpieces

Computers, videos, and puzzles educate visitors to `Art Inside Out'

MANY people think art museums are stuffy institutions where paintings loom high on walls, objects are displayed in enclosed glass cases, and the only sounds are hushed voices and footsteps echoing through corridors.

An exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago aims to change that perception.

"Art Inside Out: Exploring Art and Culture through Time" is an interactive display designed to help children age 6 and older (as well as adults) understand selected works of art and the cultures they represent.

The idea is to "make art accessible" to the public, says Jean Sousa, project director of "Art Inside Out" and associate director of the museum's Department of Museum Education.

In gallery space designated for art-education programs, 12 masterworks chosen from the museum's permanent collections are presented. The objects include paintings, sculpture, and decorative arts from African, Asian, Ancient American, European, and 20th-century collections.

Encircling this "core" area are alcoves that explore the origin of six of the objects through videos, puzzles, and learning activities.

For instance, "The Adoration of the Magi," attributed to Italian Renaissance artist Raffaello Botticini, is displayed in the main corridor. Visitors can enter an area behind the painting to learn more about the Renaissance. An exhibit shows how paint was made with egg yolks and water; to understand how artists used perspective, kids and adults can peer through a hole at a model scene and see lines converge at the vanishing point. An oversized book called "A Story in a Picture" highlights on different pag es each figure in the painting.

At the entrance to the gallery a timeline that begins with 400 AD outlines in bright colors and bold lettering the date each object was made. Questions such as "What is a museum?" and "Who works in a museum?" are answered. Computers at the end of the exhibit help visitors explore the remaining six artworks.

Ms. Sousa says the exhibit is unusual because "we've combined masterpieces of art with a learning environment." Art objects in a museum have traditionally been set up to be appreciated solely for their aesthetic aspect.

"We're trying something new. I don't know of other [art museums] that are doing this," Sousa says. "Parents and kids can start here and then go to other parts of the museum with a better understanding of the works of art ... It helps them feel more comfortable."

Sousa says the Art Institute of Chicago is able to present such an exhibit because it has gallery space designed for educational purposes. Many art museums don't have that kind of gallery space.

But, she says, "Museums are trying to become more accessible" to visitors. "It's a mandate."

* "Art Inside Out" is on view for two years.

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