Art Appreciation 101: Tackle That Museum

Have you seen this Instagram feed of little kids looking at famous artwork? It’s funky and colorful, and it inspired the above image of Sam with our favorite piece of art at the Stanford art museum, which is down the street and which we’ve been frequenting lately. I wasn’t an art major, and I’m no expert on visual art; I just like it. But one night recently I sat straight up in bed with this thought: if thirty two Picassos, a couple of Braques, and a Warhol live down the street from me and it’s free to visit them whenever I want (well, except for Tuesdays and after 5:30 pm), WHY AM I NOT VISITING THEM? And why am I not introducing Sam to them? So, we started hanging around art museums. We’re not art students, we’re not tourists with armloads of brochures, we’re not elderly connoisseurs on a group tour…we’re just a slightly obtrusive mom/toddler duo popping in to say hi to our pal, The Thinker (who really seems to need a little company).

Here are a few reasons why I’ve been exploring art museums with Sam since he was a tiny baby: 1) I want to introduce Sam to great people like Picasso and Matisse and Botticelli so he’ll recognize them as old friends when he’s big, 2) it makes people smile to see us there (well, the ones who aren’t giving me the stink eye), and–oh, fine, I’ll admit it: 3) it feels epic and the tiniest bit rebellious to waltz into an art museum with a baby on your back. Because most people don’t, and that’s a shame. It’s not surprising, though, because tackling art museums with little kids can seem daunting: museums tend to be eerily quiet, you can’t touch most of the stuff in there, and they usually just don’t seem “baby friendly”…not to mention the assumption that tiny kids simply won’t enjoy it. But this is what I’ve found to be true about tiny kids:

-They love real stuff, if you’re willing to take a risk and introduce them to it
-They love the bright colors and shapes of great art
-They kids will get excited about whatever you are genuinely excited about and whatever you introduce to them with joy and fun

Sometimes I think that the only thing really stopping me from taking Sam to incredible, “grown-up” places like art museums is the notion that they aren’t “kid-friendly.” We assume that if the Yelp reviews don’t deem a place “kid-friendly,” it must be “anti-kid” (which is occasionally true, but usually not). So, either it doesn’t even cross my mind to go to those places, or I consider it and then I’m inclined to do something that requires less effort instead. Then comes the little bouquet of fears that always threatens to keep me solidly stuck in my kitchen: What if I don’t have enough energy for this? What if parking is a nightmare and I have to walk a mile? What if we load up and get there and they’re closed? What if Sam has a tantrum in the middle of the exhibit hall in front of a Rodin? We’ll probably get kicked out. Maybe we should just go to the playground again.

…No. We should go. It’s worth it. Someone will probably think we’re so awesome they’ll interview us for the five o’clock news. They’ll give us an award! Sam will get on board and he’ll do great. LET’S DO THIS.

Note: all of the above has actually happened, except getting kicked out and getting an award. Despite everything, we’ve never gotten kicked out. We did appear on television. Sam did lose his cool in a museum once, but mainly he’s just as game, attentive, and excited as I expect him to be. 

So, here are a few logistics for the next time you tackle your art museum with your little people in tow:

1) Gear. 
   -The baby/toddler carrier: I use a forward-facing carrier for nearly all of our adventures so that Sam can ride facing out, and it’s hands-down the best solution I’ve found for keeping him happy and engaged while being constrained. 
   –Strollers: Some museums will allow strollers, but others won’t: call ahead to find out. If they don’t allow strollers, they may have a coat check area where you can deposit the stroller. If they do allow strollers, I always ditch mine anyway so that I can carry Sam and get him closer to eye level with the art. 
   -No backpacks: Bringing a backpack into a museum is a cardinal sin, so either use a locker (call ahead to see if they provide lockers at the museum you’re going to), or just bring a large purse. 

2) Move quickly. Look, the truth is, at this stage you’re probably not going to spend seven whole minutes gazing at the Botticelli in silence. We usually spend an average of three seconds looking at each piece (unless the piece contains a butterfly, the moon, or a slice of watermelon). If you have a little kid, or a few of them, you’re probably going to spend an amazing and memorable 30 minutes in the museum. Or maybe you’ll get an hour on a good day, or fifteen minutes on a bad day. The point is, you were there and you can talk about it for weeks to come.

3) Talk. Sam is most content when I’m giving him a running commentary of what we’re doing and looking at (although I’m not nearly as cool as LeVar Burton), asking him questions, and making it a team experience. This is why I take my most challenging adventures with Sam alone, rather than with friends or even with Jordan. It might sound counter-intuitive, but Sam does best in unusual places when he’s got my full attention. We have a certain kind of energy when we’re running around by ourselves: we get into this zone of exploring and communicating and experiencing stuff together, and it just works better. I point stuff out to him, he points stuff out to me, and I read him the captions.

4) Find points of recognition. Before we went to the museum, I told Sam a little bit about what we were gearing up to do. And I told him we could search the museum for his favorite things (butterflies, the moon, and garage doors–with a fair warning that we probably wouldn’t see a painting featuring a garage door). Throughout our visit, I asked him to find stuff that I knew he could recognize, even in abstract pieces. “Can you find a triangle?” “Can you spot the horse?” “Can you find something that looks like the moon?” Last week, we were in the museum and all of a sudden Sam let out a yelp and pointed. There was a painting of a slice of watermelon (yeah! modern art!), and he had just eaten watermelon at lunch. And this is where the magic happens: when Sam starts recognizing things for himself, and it all comes to life. 

5) Speaking of recognition: Look at art at home. Remember bits of intelligence? We have some big flash cards featuring great works of art–Monet, Degas, Van Gogh, Matisse–that my mom made from used art books when I was a kid. They’re fun to look at at home (and Sam loves them), but the real payoff comes when you see the real thing in person. There’s something awe-inducing about coming face-to-face with something you’ve only seen in a picture. It’s like meeting a pen pal in person for the first time. Suddenly you’re personally invested, and that makes all the difference between learning because you have to and learning because you want to.

6) Go on the hunt for art. Maybe there isn’t an art museum in your town, or maybe there is…but it’s not in the budget to go frequently (see if they offer free or discounted days!). See if you can scope out a local art gallery, and make a special trip to go look around. Ask the curator/proprietor for suggestions of other nearby places with great art to check out. Look up upcoming art shows at nearby schools or colleges. See what public art you can find around town: sculptures, murals, and the like. Bring a sketchbook and sketch what you find. In the meantime, get art books from the library! Also, check out this awesome board book series featuring art masterpieces (and these three Warhol gems that make me chuckle: 1. 2. 3.).

Great art belongs to our children as much as it belongs to the grown-ups of the world (the grown-ups who, generally speaking, have lost their sense of wonder anyway). So, let’s take our tiny kids to art museums. Let’s hike with them, go to concerts. Let’s take them to cool restaurants and nifty cafes and scenic vistas and all of the inspiring places we can. Because this world is theirs as much as it is ours, all of it, even when they’re little. 

Feel inspired to hang out in a museum soon? Check out this article, which covers the topic of taking tiny kids to museums more in-depth and has some spot-on tips for making it a great experience.

Photo Jan 30, 2 56 18 PM.jpg
Photo Jan 30, 2 57 59 PM.jpg

P.S. Pictured above is Sam with Rodin’s Gates of Hell. I chose not to tell him the title because he’s currently parroting everything I say (real stuff can be…tricky). Also, I’m pretty sure the people depicted in the bronze-cast scene are there because they brought backpacks into the museum.

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