How to Visit an Art Museum – A Guide for Families

Written by
November 10, 2023
CalColor News
Child Development
15 min read

When it comes to taking kids to an art museum, it's widely seen as an experience that blends education and entertainment. As the little ones are surrounded by the clean and bright air of the museum, they seem to shed the restlessness and distractions of their daily fast-paced lives, becoming quiet and focused. As their eyes and minds become kindled by the sparkles of colors and forms, it presents a splendid opportunity to ignite their creative thinking and cultivate their cultural awareness. 

But if you're a parent without an art background, how can you maximize your guiding role in this trip? Today, the author will share some not-so-profound tips based on several years of touring art museums around the world. In the future, CalColor will also prepare a series of articles, introducing museums and popular exhibitions in the Bay Area, California, across the United States, and even worldwide. Whether you're an art enthusiast, a curious parent, or a companion eager to explore with a young artist, we aim to unlock the secrets of museum exploration. Let’s discover how to find personal connections with artworks and transform museum visits into enjoyable and meaningful experiences.

Step 1: Warm-up and Preparation - Museum Background Research

Before embarking on a museum journey, warm-up work is crucial as it provides us with essential information about the museum,making our visit more purposeful and insightful. We can start with the museum's official website, paying special attention to the following pages, which are typically excellent sources for obtaining valuable information:

The "About Us" page: On this page, you can find information about whether the museum is privately owned or nonprofit, its historical background, its mission, and vision, among other details. For instance, consider The Broad Museum in Los Angeles, a privately endowed institution initiated by the passionate art collectors Eli and Edythe Broad. In contrast, the MET Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is a nonprofit organization (they suggest donations for admission rather than requiring it). The Getty Center in LA, on the other hand, placed a paramount emphasis on research and scholarly endeavors. Naturally, all these cultural havens are opening their doors to the public, embracing the noble mission of cultivating artistic appreciation and education. Exploring their official websites can help us understand their fundamental ethos and cultural orientation.

The "Collection" page: This page contains information about artworks in the museum's collection, offering valuable insights into the diverse genres, styles, and cultural context represented. Some museums, like the MET Metropolitan Museum of Art, have comprehensive collections spanning various eras, regions, and artistic mediums such as painting, sculpture, and photography. These museums are typically ideal places to explore culture and history. Conversely, certain museums, like the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum in San Jose, specialize in the meticulous examination and preservation of ancient Egyptian art and culture. These institutions delve deep into the specific nuances of their chosen field, providing visitors with a profound understanding of a particular artistic tradition. Modern and contemporary art museums often have extensive collections, but they also prioritize dynamic, ever-changing exhibitions that keep them closely connected to the contemporary art world. They continuously introduce new artists and artworks to provide audiences with fresh, dynamic experiences. Some museums increasingly focus on online exhibitions and digital experiences, employing advanced technologies like 3D tours, VR, and interactive learning tools to enhance visitors' art experience. By exploring the museum's official websites with your children before the visit, you can bring them into closer context to the artworks and transform their physical excursion into an exciting treasure hunt.

Step 2: Stories and Inspiration – Exploring the Lives of Artists

Artworks are not static objects hidden in the pages of history; behind each artwork lies a living, breathing individual – the artist who created it. When introducing children to the world of art in museums, they are often confronted with the weighty tapestry of history, abstract temporal and spatial concepts that may elude their comprehension. Therefore, it's essential to bring the vibrant persona behind the artworks to the forefront, helping children realize that every piece of art serves as a window into the artist's soul. Each artwork bears witness to the artist's inner world and creativity.

When we attend a solo exhibition or find ourselves deeply intrigued by a particular artwork within a comprehensive exhibition, it's worthwhile to invest some time in exploring the artist's life story. Prior to my visit to the Salvador Dali Museum, for instance, I immersed myself in a biography of the renowned artist--Salvador Dali. Witnessing his process of creation of surrealistic paintings in person, each seemingly absurd and unfamiliar symbol suddenly came alife.

All the disconnected elements on the canvas, as well as the stories behind and beyond the stage, suddenly wove together, harmonizing and corroborating each other together. It was an incredibly intriguing experience. Reading an artist's biography isn't merely a matter of diligent research; it's connected to engaging with a captivating narrative. Artists, by and large, are interesting individuals, and immersing oneself in their stories is akin to forming friendships with their playful souls. When we introduce these fascinating friends to children, we simultaneously affirm certain valuable qualities, such as their critical thinking, adventurous spirit, refusal to bow to money, markets, or authority, and their unwavering pursuit of independence and self-hood.

In this age of advanced technology and the internet, every artist has a bunch of text and visual materials to showcase their life story to the audience. Even budding artists can establish their own art websites. Accessing an artist's life story has become incredibly convenient and easy. When browsing an artist's website, consider looking into their childhood and family background, as one's early experiences can often influence their artistry. Examine their educational journey, as some artists undergo formal training while others are self-taught, both paths being inspiring and deserving of admiration. Take a glimpse into their personal artistic principles and insights, and also pay attention to media coverage and art critics' evaluations of their work to understand their standing in the art world. In essence, all these elements will assist you and your child in transforming seemingly cold and lifeless artworks into vivid and multidimensional friends.

Step 3: Observation and thinking– How to Understand Unfamiliar Artworks

Even after thorough preparation, you may still encounter a piece of art that seems "beyond your grasp."Alternatively, you might find yourself in a situation where you didn't have the time to do any prior research, much like a student facing an exam unprepared. How do you understand an unfamiliar piece of art in such situations? At this stage, let go of "history," "background," and "knowledge." Instead, rely on your powers of perception and let your imagination fly.

The essence of art lies in expression and communication. It represents the emotion and feelings that an artist cannot hold within themselves, a need to externalize them in some form so that other people can see and perceive them. Art should not heavily rely on words; instead, it should facilitate a direct transmission from eye to eye, from soul to soul. Proficient artists possess the skill to convey their inner messages with precision and integrity, but this does not mean viewers have to interpret all of them exactly. In this exchange between eyes and souls, artistic creators have the freedom to express, while viewers have the freedom to interpret.

When facing an artwork that is beyond our realm of knowledge, we have every right to interpret it by combining our own understanding and experiences. We can observe its composition, whether it's dynamic or balanced; we can observe its colors, whether they are cool or warm; we can observe its tone, whether it's soothing or intense; we can observe the elements within the image, whether they trigger certain memories? Then, let all the elements blend within your mind, perceiving the overall impression they collectively generate: Does it look beautiful or unattractive to you? Does it align with or challenge your preferences? Is it more appealing or incomprehensible to you?

During this process, there's no need to hide your confusion from children as in the story "The Emperor's New Clothes." Instead, acknowledge that your perspective to this artwork is equally not authoritative enough, and invite them to explore their feelings towards the artwork and listen to their opinions. Art should be a medium to initiate conversations, discussions, and thoughts. Sometimes, you may be surprised by children's unique perspectives and insights.

Step 4: Review and Recap – the Secrets of a Memorable Journey

In the final part of this article, here are some tips to help children review and recap what they've learned during their visit:

First, doodle in the children's area of the art gallery: Every art gallery has a children's area, large or small, offering interactive tools such as coloring paper or treasure maps related to the exhibition, encouraging children to re-express what they have seen through drawing or other creative methods.

Second, explore the museum's educational programs: On the museum's Event pages, you'll often find a variety of interactive activities related to the exhibition, including lecture, artists’ talks, guided tours, concert, family events, special-themed nights, digital exhibitions, or virtual activities. There are plenty of options to choose from, so pick activities that suit your child's age and interests.

Third, explore the museum’s shop: The items in the shop are usually creative and small-scaled artworks. Unlike the museum's collections, these items can be touched, played with, or taken home. While some large art books and art crafts can be quite expensive, choosing a bookmark or postcard featuring an artwork that you or your child appreciate is also a great option. These small reproductions will serve as a long lasting reminder on your desk or bookshelf of what a wonderful afternoon you spent at the museum.

Fourth, give the camera to your child: During your museum visit, let your child hold the camera and encourage them to take photos in the areas where photo taking is allowed. They can capture things that trigger their interest—whether it's a detail of an artwork, a unique angle of a sculpture, or a corner of the exhibition hall. These photos will help them transform fleeting moments into lasting memories.

Fifth, follow-up activities and resources: Identify something that excites your child during the museum visit, whether it's an artist, a specific artwork, a historical era, or anything else. Once you're back home, help them dig deeper into this interest. Visit the library to borrow relevant books, search for information online, review the photos they took, engage in discussions with them, and repeat the topic. Keep nurturing their sparks of curiosity and passion and they will grow over time.

For myself, every trip to the art museum is a recharge of the soul; every time I walk out of a museum, it leaves behind a special treasure in the heart. When we worry that art might be too lofty or profound for children, they may have already reached out with more acute antennas, communicating and resonating in their own way. This must be the enchantment of art. May this article bring you new destinations for strolling with your children, and may art create more high-quality moments of companionship for you and your children.

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