Museum Baby

A few weeks ago my husband Paul and I went to New York for a family visit. I am a native New Yorker but my mother now lives across the bridge in New Jersey. Whilst in NYC Paul and I did the New Yorker thing – Sunday brunch, hanging out in Central Park, walking up and down Broadway eating Haagen Dazs ice cream, checking out the Village…. and we visited the Met, one of my all-time favorite museums.
 
Being child-conscious, I was interested to observe parents and children as we strolled around New York. A few things caught my eye.
 
The first thing was the interesting phenomena of parents having quality time with their tiny children in the Museum. Now for those of you who haven’t been to the Met (could there be…?!!) it is HUGE!. Vast – enormous, gargantuan. And it is PACKED. Slowly flowing hordes of tourists speaking a dozen different languages meander aimlessly through the rooms whilst packs of teen agers on field trips from enrichment camps squirm and push and take up more space than human beings are meant to (whilst also speaking a multitude of languages and accompanied by the thrum and buzz of their ipods). It is a vastly overstimulating place where, if one isn’t on the ball, one could get knocked over, stepped on or tripped. And that’s just adults!
 
Now I can sort of see why parents might want to take young children to a museum – it’s a safe and somewhat contained space (though losing a child in the Met could be as unnerving as losing one in Central Park) and it’s Something To Do. And there were a few parents who really seemed to be doing just that – finding Something To Do and perhaps hoping that they could get something out of the trip despite their child’s complete lack of interest in the exhibits. There was one brave mother who seemed to fit in this category – I was astonished when I saw her. Four little children, with the eldest no more than 6, the youngest strapped to her chest, she was field marshaling her tiny troops through the collection of Greek statues when I spotted her. Briskly she walked, most of the time backwards, shepherding her little ones from one case of Greek vases to the next. She took obvious pleasure in their beauty – her children seemed less enthralled. Indeed, her 5 year old was more  impressed by the rasps and crackles coming from the walkie-talkie at a security guard’s belt than Mom’s exclamations of "look – you can see a story on this vase." Mom was trying hard but a 5 year old is going to be more interested in a real life flesh and blood security guard and her fascinating accoutrements any day of the week than a 2,5oo year old vase with obscure pictures on it!
 
What really got me though were the two women and their 4 or 5 year olds in the Modern art exhibit. Now OK – some Greek art might interest a child – and maybe Mom took the children to see the life size medieval knights on life size horses next (a sight I certainly loved as a much older child!!). But here were two adults not just passing past the art with the children and looking at what was on offer ("what pretty colors, aren’t they darling") but actually trying to engage the children in conversation about the Modigliani they were looking at!
 
This is strange to me. This was really strange to observe (whilst trying to look like I was merely captivated by the paintings instead of the scene unfolding in front of them!) and right now as I type this, really strange to think about. What could those women have been thinking? One can only assume that they honestly thought that the way to help their children appreciate art (though what that means for 5 year olds, don’t ask me!!) was to expose them to art and to engage them in conversation about art.
 
But of course, what’s missing here is an understanding of the difference between the modern adult’s 2oth century consciousness which creates and can discuss modern art and the consciousness of a 5 year old child. A 5 year simply does not see the world as we adults do and hasn’t developed the powers of empathy, intellect and selfhood to  be able to stand out of herself to appreciate that most abstract of concepts, a piece of modern art. And – she shouldn’t be prematurely put into the position of trying to achieve that consciousness. Once again, with the best intention in the world, we have an example of adults unwittingly bringing children out of their stage of development and into the next stage of development before those children are ready. And I don’t care how precociously interested a child might be in modern or any other kind of art – I ask the question, where does that interest come from? If a child has miraculously come to earth with an insatiable interest in modern art that seemingly comes out of nowhere, that is one thing. But if she has developed an interest because adults have exposed her to things – whether consciously or not – then that is quite a different kettle of fish.
 
It’s like parents who complain that their 8 year old is reading Anna Karenina. Well who gave him the book? Who said "yes, you may read this" and did not say "no, that is not for you right now." And I know what this is like – I had a 11 year old with a precocious interest in advanced science. My husband and I decided to let him go with it – but there was definitely a cost. I still think we made the right decision – but my now (summer 2007) 16 year old has some imbalances in him. Maybe we should have said no. But we were cautious and decided to go with what seemed not just a whim but a deep soul need. And  he is who he is.
 
But….11 is very different than 5. And the longer I am in this field of work and the more I observe what is around me and consult with parents and read reports and the news….. the more strong I am in declaring the absolute sacredness of those first 7 years of childhood and how they MUST be preserved for later health and balance in each human being. Let children be children and let them be at the stage of  life they are at. A 5 year old does not need to go to museums – not even science or folk museums. She does not need to see – she needs to do. And she needs to do what is real and meaningful – so even so-called "hands-on" or "interactive" museums are out. Just because something has been cleverly broken down by an adult so that a child can get their hands on things (such as touch and feel exhibits) does not mean that this satisfies the young child’s need for wholes – for things to be natural and real and to have relevance. If a child has never seen a turtle or a chinchilla, feeling a turtle shell and then a chinchilla pelt is abstract and not connected to life. It is not real. The child cannot internalize the abstract concepts of "turtle" and "chinchilla" because she does not know what those animals are. The concepts are not grounded. On the other hand, if in a zoo or pet shop she gets to see and handle those animals, then it starts to make sense.
 
Back to the museum, let me hasten to say that I sympathize with parents in cities desperate for Something To Do with young children. In such cases, go to a museum. But just enjoy being together and wandering around and don’t use the time as a Learning Experience. Just enjoy yourselves and don’t be surprised if what makes the strongest impression on your child is the man in the electric wheelchair or the ride you had on the escalator.

Posted on July 5, 2007 in Children and Society, Family Life and Parenting

COMMENTS
  • TR says:

    I whole heartily agree!!
    We are raising bright/gifted 6yo children that have taken to their home education eagerly. It is sometimes difficult to strike the balance between their apparent desire to learn fractions with the developmentally appropriate need for exploratory and creative play and to let each express itself as the child shows interest.

  • kiki says:

    Donna,
    I have to disagree with you for the first time ever about several points in your article…
    While I agree with you about the insanity & absurdity of having a “modern art” historical/critical discussion
    about art with a young child, I really see nothing wrong with children going to art museums.
    Children don’t view paintings by Modigliani or Monet from an adult perspective. Children aren’t
    going to “get” the concept in conceptual art…
    They are seeing big (or small) paintings with large swaths (or small dabs) of color. They’re seeing
    that other people depicted people, animals, trees and such with paints…etc… They’re seeing
    abstract shapes and tiny figures…
    Sometimes the art is interesting for them, sometimes not… same for adults…
    My daughter has enjoyed art museums since she was small…. She loves Georgia O’Keefe’s Clouds
    and sky painting at the Chicago Art Institute (for example). It is a huge canvas with big clouds…
    and it evokes a response from her of wonder and awe…. it’s a sky on canvas made by a lady who
    enjoyed painting flowers and sky. Simple as that…. How exciting!
    We’re not going to discuss O’Keefe’s relationship with Stieglitz or view her flower depictions from a feminist perspective…
    Our child likes Degas’ ballerina paintings. I’m not going to explain to her what the role of a dancer was
    in 19th century Paris…
    We’re not going to burden our museum-going child with adult justifications or interpretations of art. Adults need reasons for
    things….Kids can just enjoy art without a reason… “That’s my favorite color!…..Look at that little dog! ….I like her dress!”
    While science museums can be palling for a young child with their endless factual explanations, and long lecture-laden walks through halls of mediterranean vases are absurd for a six year old, there is little harm that can be done by seeing a huge Helen Frankenthaler
    colorful abstract painting with its colors flowing into one another or a Rothko with its huge planes of pigment….Certainly, we’re not going to discuss his reasons for suicide while we’re enjoying these canvases….
    I think a Matisse painting of dancing figures is harmless…. A child can be thrilled by the movement
    and by the freedom of painting a figure without photographic perfection or exquisite likenesses….
    Certainly I’m not trying to make my daughter an art expert… but I ask, what is the harm of beauty?
    My daughter loves making pictures every day. She’s excited that people can grow up and continue to
    make pictures. And she knows that pictures aren’t just for the refrigerator or thrown in the trash, but
    can bring joy and beauty to many people…. And that creativity isn’t something to shun or to
    be fearful of, but to be celebrated and enjoyed.
    Incidentally, a trip to the Eric Carle Museum of Picturebook Art is a highly recommended….My daughter
    went to an art, animals and imagination workshop there last summer that was brilliant! The children
    spent time with farm animals, worked with paints, collages and made lots of pictures. They met
    several picturebook maker/authors including Eric Carle. It was one of the greatest experiences ever for our
    daughter. She loved it and so did all the children there.
    So please don’t outright discourage folks from introducing their children to art and its celebration.
    We need more creative souls, not less…
    Respectfully,
    Kiki

  • Marianna says:

    I agree that it is silly to attempt to engage such young children in deep conversation about the artwork. I wonder, though, if these mothers KNEW at their gut level that this was absurd, but were bowing to cultural pressure to have the “smartest” child possible. I’ve seen the same thing at the zoo. Parents bombarding their kids with all sorts of info about the animals instead of simply letting the kids enjoy the experience. As a society we aren’t content to just let our kids be!

  • donna says:

    Hi Kiki and Marianna,
    First forgive me for taking so long, Kiki, to respond to you…I had originally had the intention to not respond to comments on my blog because of how involved I am with my Forum…but I have since decided that some people might find that to be really unfriendly. So here I am!
    So…. first of all, thank you for taking the time to write in. And basically I agree with you – looking at lovely paintings of ballet dancers by Degas or even big splotches of paint by Kandinsky is fine – if that’s all one is doing with a young child. But… that is not what I so often see. Like Marianna said, even in zoos there is this panic to ensure that the children “lean something.” And it certainly is not just the parents who do this – I remember being at the Minnesota zoo a few years ago with my sons where the electronic information panels were more of a draw to the children than the camels standing looking at us! That is the kind of thing I am talking about.Even if parents just wanted to enjoy the animals themselves, they and their children would find themselves bombarded by “fun facts” and “endangered species alerts.”
    The other thing, Kiki, that, perhaps I didn’t emphasize sufficiently is the sheer magnitude of the Met. It is one thing visiting a small museum (like the art museum near us in Madison which could fit in its entirety within one wing of the Met) and quite another to visit an enormously overstimulating place like the Met. Just walking up the steps and getting to the booth to pay are an adventure in themselves for a small child! My point is that people often forget – or do not know about – how young children experience the world and therefore think that a visit to an art museum, complete with discussions on art, is in order. And why shouldn’t they? That is the kind of thing (albeit in trivial ways) which most conventional educators advocate. Look at the scope and sequence at your local public school if you don’t believe me!)
    I love the thought of your daughter enjoying Georgia O’Keefe’s colors – wonderful! A gentle experience of the joy of color like you describe is to be encouraged, as you say. But that’s not the kind of thing which I was observing on my trip to NYC.
    Thank you both for writing!

  • kiki says:

    Thank you Donna for your wise words.
    I agree with you. If parents take their kids to zoos or museums, they need to “edit” the experience in order
    to preserve the wonder and innocence of it all.
    Most parents forget that these trips are often the first time a child has seen…a zebra…or a giraffe…or
    a whatever it is… This is a magical experience that must flow naturally, not be dictated by some electronic
    fact gadget…Ughh…
    Those information panels and computers are dreadful, boring and basically kill the experience. Museum curators
    justify their exhibits with all this fact-crammed gear in order to “authenticate” the exhibits and have access to funding.
    Thank you for your sensitivity. And thank you in advance for the new curricula….!
    Sincerely,
    Kiki

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