I really try to practice what I preach (about young children belonging in museums) and get my 1yr old son into museums regularly. I’d say on average we go downtown about twice a month and explore one of the museums along the Mall. Yesterday, we’d arranged to meet a friend and her 1yr old at the National Gallery of Art. I realized this was the first time he had been back to an art museum since he started walking…and was no longer content to just look at things from his stroller.
I’ll say up front it was not our best museum visit. I did some things right (we went with a sympathetic friend, had no agenda for what we “had” to see, brought snacks). I also did some things wrong (he is teething and transitioning to one nap and I pushed through despite his fragile state that morning). However, I realized that my biggest problem was that we had not practiced for this type of museums.
Most days, we don’t have to worry about noise level, he only has to hold my hand when we cross a street and a colorful pile of stuff in the middle of the floor are toys he can play with. At the National Gallery of Art, it is better if he holds my hands and we talk in a lower voice in the galleries and the colorful things on the floor are priceless Calder stabiles.
Needless to say, I was a bit tense, he was resistant to holding my hand and therefore both of us were distracted and couldn’t enjoy the experience fully. In fact, we ended up bailing early.
Not that there weren’t bright spots! He lay down on a bench in the Calder room and gazed up at the spinning forms with a huge grin on his face. We rode back and forth on a moving sidewalk under a light installation and watched the lights “chase” us and had a fun snack watching the waterfall cascade by the window. It just showed me that I needed to prep both of us better for our next visit.
Any time a child (or adult really) visits a new place they want and need to know the expectations. If you do a little ground work in advance it can make the visit go so much more smoothly. For my family, we are comfortable in the National Museum of American History and museums like it, but art museums are less familiar and comfortable for us. Every family has a different comfort level, but the same basic steps can apply.
In our case, my son and I will practice holding hands and staying close together (in situations other than crossing a road). I’ll show him times where you can look but not touch and explain it with a phrase I can easily repeat in the museum. When I taught preschool we had three “museum manners” we taught the kids. 1. Catch a bubble (keep a quiet voice by pretending to hold a bubble in your mouth). 2. Hands in your pockets or on your tummy (to remind you not to touch) 3. Quiet bodies/walking feet. He is too young to independently remember all of those, but we will start laying the groundwork for them.
We will go back to the art gallery often and pick rooms to start with that just show things on the wall or behind glass. Then we will work up to sculptures lying loose on the floor. I won’t hesitate to leave, or put him in his stroller, to keep it fun for both of us AND reinforce the rules. I’ll respect his schedule and mine.
Mostly though, we will keep going so it becomes as familiar to him as our backyard, with rules that are just as intuitive. It wasn’t a perfect visit, but at least I have a road map for our next steps.