A Night at the Museum

night at the museum

At the toddler stage, teaching art to kids is easy: Throw on a smock and get out the finger paints. They need no inspiration. They have a visceral connection to their self-expression in color.

But as children grow, their relationship to art changes. Art is no longer simply a reflection of their own self-expressions. But we make a mistake if we teach them that its now all about someone else’s expression. And we tend to do just that when we frontload “art appreciation” with artists biographies and stylistic labels. Those things can enhance understanding, but they can also create obstacles during the initial stages of encountering art, leaving students baffled and bored.

Recently a friend confessed that, despite displaying a well-prepared enthusiasm while taking her children to museums, she always found the experience disappointing. She thought neither she nor the kids were gaining what they were supposed to from each painting. She is not alone in those feelings.

I found my own path to art quite late. I had studied music extensively, but growing up with little exposure, was lost at sea when it came to visual art. Then I suddenly realized that the vivid pictures in my Russian history books and on the covers of my LPs and scores of Russian piano music were, indeed, “art”: Russian art from the late eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries. And loved those images, both the glittering fairytale paintings and the gritty historical canvases documenting Russia’s messy slough through political history. With that connection made, I could then branch out to embrace virtually every type of art that I encountered.

So how do we help children find their own connections? The first step involves building experiences of discovery and glee. (Remember those finger paints.) We want to help kids enter a world where two-and three-dimensional art has the power to communicate ideas and stir the imagination. So lets go back to those disappointing museum visits and rethink our goals.

First, please rid yourself of the thought that kids need to look at every item in an exhibit. The very idea is exhausting and makes me want to run out the door! If time allows, walk through each room of the exhibit. If the museum is extensive, pick a set of rooms that seem likely to appeal. People working in a museum can help advise you in this matter.

Once you have defined your route, set each student free with the goal of finding one item per room that draws his or her eye. Alternatively, ask kids to find their least favorite items in the room. (This works well with skeptical or disengaged teens.) After they have located their pieces of art, have them jot down or tell what they chose and why. No concrete reasons are needed, simply a response. However, conversation among the students often leads to deeper questioning. If the kids begin to disagree, all the better!

The advantage of this strategy comes from eliminating preconceptions of what a student is “supposed” to see, find, or gain. Instead, you are asking a student to encounter an artistic stimulus and respond to it. You are asking the art to win the student over, rather than placing a student in front of the art and saying: “Here, this is important.”

If students find nothing they like or dislike, ask them instead to identify their favorite (or least favorite) frame. Kids rarely know that the framing of a painting is a critical part of its presentation. So it is possible that a student with little interest in the canvases themselves will become intrigued by the opulent, austere, or unusual frames, especially if they learn a bit about the materials and process of framing.

Similarly, if neither canvas nor frame catches their eyes, they might be led to comment upon the placement of the art-the juxtaposition of the pieces in the exhibit. How are the items grouped? Where are sculptures placed, and why? And why are some paintings presented singularly, and others in groups, including double or triple layering?

If none of this works, then back away entirely from the art and consider the way a show is mounted. What kind of lighting is used? Is it natural, streaming through windows or skylights, or is it electric? Are there spotlights used for some paintings Why are some paintings covered with glass, and others not? What kind of labeling is given each item?

In short, everything about the art should be up for questioning and response. Practical and technical topics can liberate a students mind from a pre-set, ineffective approach to art. At the very least, they can remove guilt or disappointment about not getting what one allegedly is supposed to get from viewing a given painting or sculpture.

Finally—and this is important—viewing art is tiring! There’s a reason museums have cafés. Taking breaks in a museum brings a special delight, starting with sitting down. Time in a café reminds us that art was, and is, social. As students become more aware of the interconnections between artists, composers, writers, philosophers, and their circles of friends, paintings and sculptures may step off of their esteemed pedestals and become more accessible items.

Above all, make the visits. Take whatever happens in the experience, tuck it away, and wait for it inevitably to percolate in the child’s mind. Usually it isn’t long before other material will trigger parts of the experience, and connections will form. And slowly, very slowly, the student will be able to develop a more mature eye and cultivate a deeper appreciation of the power that visual art can play in our lives.

Originally published in The Classical Teacher  Winter 2018 edition

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