Summer at the Museums
June 14, 2011
by Cynthia Raso
Summer vacation is just weeks away and I'm guessing most of you are still trying to figure out just how you are going to occupy your little ones. If you are anything like me, you are also looking for a break from the monotony of the pool and the playground. How about an art museum? (Leave the science and history museums until the late fall and winter when the tourists have all but left.) Now, I am sure some of you are imagining your kids at an art museum and hearing a chorus of "I'm bored" or "Can we go see the dinosaurs now" ringing in your head. I am here to tell you that going to museums can both fun and relaxing for even the youngest of audiences. You just need a couple of helpful hints to get you started.
Prepare them for the experience.
Start your kids off right and talk to them about what a museum is and what we do there. I often read Laurent de Bruhnoff's Babar's Museum of Art to my young students as a way to describe the museum experience. The Can You Find It? series published in conjunction with the Metropolitan Museum of Art encourages children to look closely at artworks. If you really want to get their creative juices flowing; print out a couple of artworks from any of the museum websites and have them create their own gallery wall.
Make the rules fun!
See who can walk the softest, play follow the leader, make sure your looking eyes and listening ears are tightly fastened. A good way to get them not to touch; describe the invisible oil that lives on their hands and just loves to eat away at beautiful works of art.
Make your plan and keep it short.
Choose a few galleries or a single exhibition to visit. Look online the night before so you know where to go within the museum and learn a little about the objects yourself.
Let them look!
While volumes may be published on an artwork or artist, you don't have to be an expert to look. After all, art is subjective and children are capable (sometimes more so than adults) of looking and constructing meaning. Some helpful ways to encourage looking; bring pencils and paper for sketching, ask them to find their favorite artwork in a gallery and tell you why, compare and contrast two artworks that are next to each other, write a story about the figures in a painting.
Where do I start?
Below is a listing of what I think are some of the more interesting and family-friendly events happening in D.C. this summer. This should get you started!
National Gallery of Art
The National Gallery of Art offers some of the most robust programming for children in the DC metro area. You should by all means take advantage of their unique offerings, but keep in mind that they are popular and you might want to arrive early to secure a spot. Highlights include their "Stories in Art: Summer Story Series which runs from July 10 to August 9 for ages 4 to 7. For the older kids ages 8 to 11, they offer "Artful Conversations Summer Series" from July 17 to August 10.
National Portrait Gallery
The National Portrait Gallery shares a space with the Smithsonian's American Art Museum in the heart of the 7th Street corridor. The Gallery's collection is a great opportunity for children to learn about art and history by meeting pivotal figures in American history. If you haven't yet, you must visit the famous "Lansdowne" portrait of George Washington. That, in and of itself, is worth the visit and the NPG has a great website dedicated to the painting where you can find good information and fun games for the kids.
The museum is also hosting the exhibition, Calder's Portraits, A New Language. Calder's wire shaped portraits will no doubt captivate your little ones and encourage them to think creatively. Calder's works are also located at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (on the third level) and the National Gallery of Art, East Building. If you have the time, plan to make a few visits downtown to see a range of his work.
Upcoming activities include the ongoing Portrait Discovery Kit Activity in June and July and National Baseball Family Day on July 9th.
Smithsonian American Art Museum
The Smithsonian American Art Museum is one of my favorites in terms of its family offerings and it doesn't disappoint this summer. The Great American Hall of Wonders, opening July 15, celebrates the nineteenth-century belief that Americans, as a whole, were gifted innovators. The exhibition includes paintings from renowned American painters as well as sculptures, prints, survey photographs, zoological and botanical illustrations, patent models and engineering diagrams. In other words, there is something for everyone.
Art-stronaut Family Day will take place on August 13th and PHEON on July 16 and August 14.
Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
The Smithsonian's National of Museum of Asian art is housed in two connecting buildings just behind the Smithsonian Castle. Located on the 1st level of the Sackler is the beautiful and serene, Echoes of the Past: The Buddhist Cave Temples of Xiangtangshan, on view now until July 31. It is worth seeing not only for the sixth-century Chinese Buddhist sculpture, but for its video installation that recreates one of the stone temples. This small exhibition will offer an easy space for you to navigate with your family and the kids are certain to enjoy the video installation.
For my children, the the monumental hands of the Buddha were probably the most interesting feature. Besides being able to enjoy the accompanying family programs, listed below, you may also want to take peak at the Museum's on-line guide, The Art of Buddhism: A Teacher's Guide. This guide offers easily understandable information about Buddhism, the visual image of the Buddha, as well as the meaning of several mudras or hand gestures found in Buddhist art, information which is easily applied to this exhibition.
Take part in ImaginAsia: Echoes of the Past for ages 8 to 14 on June 18, 19 and 25 plus July 26.
The Corcoran Gallery of Art
The Corcoran Gallery of Art is offering free admission this summer as well as some great family programs. Beginning June 18, they are showcasing the work of Chris Martin (originally from D.C.) in a three-part exhibition. His works are large, colorful and dynamic and will undoubtedly appeal to a child's aesthetic. While you are there to see the Martin's work take advantage of some of their great family programs including Edible Color Wheel for ages 4 to 12 on July 9 and August 6; Paintings: It's Personal for ages 8 to 12 on July 16 and Light, Color and Paint, Oh My! for ages 5 to 7 on August 20.
While by no means a complete list of museum-related family events in the DC area, this should give you a feel for what is happening. If you want more, consider Becoming an Our Kids Member for a complete guide on all the local events for kids and families.
I hope you can pencil in one or two of these events and take advantage of what our city's museums have to offer.
About the Author
Cynthia Raso holds an M.A. in art history and has worked as a museum educator for more than ten years. She is the founder and Executive Director of Art Within Reach, which teaches museum-based programs to early childhood audiences.
**For the most accurate and current information, please check directly with the museum's website.