Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Seeing a museum through the eyes of a child

            If I were to ever write a book on parenting, one of the recurring themes would be the importance of seeing the world through your children’s eyes. As an adult our role in interacting with children is usually the opposite. We need them to know when and how to eat. We need them to understand when they should talk and when they have to be quiet. We need them to comprehend that some spaces are made for play and others just can’t handle a game of tag. We need them to see the world through our eyes.
            But there are lots of times when a shift in our own perspective can bring unexpected benefits. I encountered one of these over New Years.


            My mother-in-law lives in a large city with a nice collection of places to visit and things to see. For the past couple of years we’ve spent the mornings during our visits with her either picking around the various space, health, and physics-oriented exhibits at the science center or checking in with the monkeys, wolves, and elephants at the zoo. We’ve had fun at both but are now reaching the point where its time to try something new. So this New Years I suggested we try out the art museum.
            As a kid I didn’t have an art museum near where I lived and I don’t think I’d have had much interest in one if we had. But during a college semester spent traveling in Europe, I discovered that a really good art museum can be an incredibly interesting place to spend some time. Granted, it helps when you’re looking at Picasso’s Guernica or Michelangelo’s David, but once I was done with those I found the lesser known stuff to be intriguing as well. It was interesting to be able to see the changing styles, the intellectual trends, the up-close textures of different pieces and to fathom the amount of work and effort required to bring them into being.
            Of course, none of those things holds much currency with our children but, as we’d read a couple of books set in and around art museums, they were curious enough to see a real one that they agreed to go along.
All the same, I was somewhat nervous as to how enjoyable it would really be for them. Prestigious art museums like one in my mother-in-law’s city are generally not the most kid-friendly places. You can’t touch anything. You are expected to be reverently quiet. You can’t run down the halls. Docents and museum personnel glide quietly about the gallery rooms, looking warily at those who might violate these prohibitions. It can be an intimidating and frustrating environment for kids as well as the adults who bring them.
{As an aside, the museum where my mother-in-law lives has tried to bridge some of these challenges by creating a gallery near the entrance where kids can create mobiles, construct felt collages, and interact with different pieces of art in the collection through touch-screen computer terminals. From what I saw, this space was being well used by mothers with young children. It also appeared that the museum’s strategy to keep those kids and families interested as they grow leans heavily on an app that enables the creation of personalized tours. It would be interesting to track how effective that strategy is. I could see it going either way.}
As a way of giving Pip and Polly some direction to start with, Ava and I picked out a couple of rooms – the Egyptian gallery and the armory – about which we knew the kids had some outside knowledge to draw upon. This worked pretty well. In the Egyptian gallery, both of them were fascinated by a papyrus scroll that was unrolled in a glass case. They’d seen a documentary talking about scrolls a couple of weeks before and found it exciting to be able to examine one up close. In the armory, they liked checking out a broad sword that I told them reminded me of Excalibur.
But it wasn’t until we turned them loose that things really got interesting. Children as a general rule have a heat-seeking aesthetic. They know intuitively what appeals to them and have no qualms about immediately dispensing with stuff that doesn’t. Their judgments are untempered by any concern for historical significance, prestigious names, or opinions beyond those of their immediate companions. They also are unconcerned with anyone else’s collective order or genre. They are liable to walk into a room and pick out something they find interesting, spend two minutes looking it over, then moving on to see what the next room holds. It turns out this can be a very compelling way to experience a museum.
Following Polly and Pip around that morning was a great reminder that at its stripped down essence an art museum is basically a house of entertainment. Its thrills are perhaps more subtle than a movie theater or amusement park, but at heart the goal of a visit is pretty much the same – you want to see something cool, to find some joy, to experience a visceral sensation you don’t usually get to have in the everyday world. And, while there are all kinds of interesting patterns and histories at work in the pieces around you, you don’t actually have to know any of that for it to be enjoyable. Pip’s favorite piece was a wacky bookcase set up at the far end of a long hallway. It looked like something he could make out of LEGOs. Polly’s favorite was a portrait of a girl about her age. As she stood in front of it, I wondered if she wasn’t imagining herself within that picture. Without knowing any of the intellectual currents or conceptual challenges at work in the art they were seeing, the kids made real connections with those pieces, connections that came from deep within themselves.

            And that’s a particularly exciting reminder of what a good piece of art should actually be – something visceral and expressive, something that resonates with some aspect of your soul, something that draws out feelings and thoughts and memories, something that helps you learn more about who you are. I think the kids got a brief whiff of that over New Years. I can’t wait to take them back and do it all again.

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