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Museums/Culture: Artful Advice for Touring Galleries with Kids

More and more art galleries around the world are welcoming children to their domains. New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art sees more than 160,000 kids each year. Our own Art Gallery of Ontario's success story is their Sunday "Off the Wall" program where kids dress in costumes similar to certain masterpieces, illustrate books and have fun with art. Hamilton's Art Gallery hosts "Families First" on the first Sunday of each month throughout the year, where families have a quick tour through the gallery and then create their own art; it could be a three-dimensional work or even a drum that's whomped through the gallery in a parade.

Yet, it can be intimidating to take kids into a gallery, especially one where the halls are hushed and museum staff lift their eyeglasses to glower at noisy kids approaching the artwork. Enter Philip Yenawine, a partner in Visual Understanding in Education. His non-profit organization in Cambridge, Massachusetts, trains teachers and gallery staff on why and how to tour kids through art galleries. While travelling with your kids, it's worth it to drop into the Guggenheim in New York to look at modern art, the Louvre in Paris to see the masters or even our National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa this summer to walk around the Picassos. Besides the enjoyment factor, studies have shown that kids who know how to describe what they see and support their theories can transfer that skill to other school subjects. Here's how to make it fun for all concerned:

MAKE A GAME OUT OF IT: One enterprising mum commandeers her kids straight into the art gallery giftshop to buy five postcards. The challenge? To find the real works pictured on the cards in the gallery. Within minutes, the kids are off and running. We used to play "Guess the Title." I would cover up the title while each kid guessed what it could be. When I read out the true title, we usually had a great debate. Kay plays a memory game with students: Look at a painting for 20 seconds. Pretend someone has taken it away and try to remember what was there. Some gallery instructors get the kids to act out what they see in a painting or sculpture. For older kids, bring along a sketchbook and pencils so that they can draw their favorite artworks.

LISTEN, DON'T LECTURE: So eight-year-old Natalie, and I are standing in front of Henri Matisse's The Music Lesson painted in 1917, showing a family at home-Mama and son at the piano, someone in the garden and perhaps an older son sitting in a chair holding a paperback-size object. "Is he playing Game Boy?" she asks innocently. Then, I do the wrong thing. I laugh. A kid hunched over an electronic game 80 years ago? Not likely.

There is definitely a right way to take kids through an art gallery and laughing at their interpretations is not it. What I could have said, according to Jennifer Kay, head of public programming at the Art Gallery of Hamilton and a former student of Yenawine's, "They didn't have Game Boy back then, Natalie. What do you think the kids in this picture would have done for fun?" I could have used my daughter's kid-related interpretation as a jumping off point for an interesting discussion.

Children look for stories in paintings that relate to their world. A gloomy house becomes a "Goosebumps" setting; a girl sitting alone has just lost her best friend. It's okay to offer your own interpretation, says Kay, as long as it's not presented as the "better" one. There's no right and wrong answer. Instead, ask three questions: "What do you think is going on in this picture? What else do you see here? What is it that makes you say that?" and listen instead of lecture.

A FEW RULES: Let your kids know that they can touch only with their eyes. Phone the gallery ahead to check special programs or pamphlets. Ask staff which paintings are popular with kids and know if you're child could be frightened. A friend told me of her daughter's nightmares after she had seen Salvador Dali's paintings of melting clocks and body parts. Ask about peak periods. I took Natalie to an Impressionist exhibit once at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on a Sunday afternoon. Bad move. It was so jammed that neither of us could get near the paintings. Many galleries have a free day or free evening. Save money by planning a visit then.

KEEP IT SHORT: It's better to look at a few paintings chosen by the kids and leave on an enthusiastic high. "Let children take the lead," advises Kay. "Follow their interests and keep encouraging them to talk about they see. But don't try to see everything." Of course, you can be crafty. When one dad took his 14-year-old daughter to the Louvre, he found out beforehand where the Mona Lisa was hanging. Silently guiding her along the halls, they came to a room where people were crowded around a painting. His tactic worked. Of course, she ran over to look and came back exclaiming, "Dad, it's the Mona Lisa. And it's the real one!"

KID-FRIENDLY SPACES: Kids seem to like art when it's mixed with interesting architecture. My kids love the Guggenheim in New York with its spiralling down ramp and the Pompidou Centre in Paris with its outside tunnel escalators. Small galleries are sometimes better or galleries with kids programs such as the Musée des Beaux Arts in Montreal or the Art Institute of Chicago, used to kid's voices echoing off the walls. Both the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Art Gallery of Hamilton offer March break camps that will whet a kid's interest in touring galleries around the world.





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