Art museums, once bastions of hushed voices, are no longer shushing kids. In fact, they're finding clever ways to draw them in -- mini tours for toddlers, touch-me installations to foster interest in classic masterpieces, and treasure hunts that promote exploration. "Exposure to the visual arts, especially in these creative ways, expands a child's awareness of the world and is a tool that can be used for learning in science, history, math, and more," says Robert Frankel, director of museums and visual arts at the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington, DC.
To explore this new landscape, Child conducted the first-ever data-driven survey to assess the family-friendliness of U.S. art museums. We began with the members of the Association of Art Museum Directors, eliminating facilities that were closed for renovations, were revamping their children's program, or offered no family activities. We sent the remaining 100-plus museums 42-question surveys, which we developed with the advisory board noted at the end of this article. Rather than judge the depth of the collection, we examined family tours, kids' and family classes, educational programs for school groups, staffing, the accessibility of the exhibits to kids, and other features key to a memorable family experience.
What we found out: Many art museums covet, clamor for, and cater to kids. Read on to learn about their cool exhibits and classes. Be sure to call ahead for dates and times.
The Art Institute of Chicago opened its first children's gallery in 1926. Its legacy is the state-of-the-art Kraft Education Center, which puts art in context. "The education center tries to give families a connection between art and life," says Jean Sousa, director of the center's interpretive exhibitions and family programs. "You might see an African mask plus a video of that mask being worn in a performance, plus a mannequin wearing the mask, and then you can make a mask-all of which informs what you see when you look at the mask."
"Hello, Met!," an hourlong introduction to the museum's collection for families with kids ages 5 to 12, which includes sketching the masterpieces; classes take place every Sunday in March.
Michael Norris, Ph.D., associate museum educator, likes to compare the venerable, even cavernous Metropolitan Museum of Art to Hogwarts -- with art in it. "We're this wonderful, mysterious palace of art," he says. "And that's what I try to bring to families."
The Met has a mascot -- an ancient Egyptian earthenware hippopotamus named William --yet you won't see it used as a gimmick in the children's handbooks or the museum halls. "That was my decision," says Dr. Norris. "Our collection, which is made up of more than 2 million works of art, is certainly worthy of children and their curiosity. And I'm out to prove it."
He more than does: The Met hosts the most family programs of any museum in our survey (44 are scheduled for March alone), including "Start With Art" (storybook readings and gallery tours for kids under 7) and "Look Again!" (themed tours for 5- to 12-year-olds with music and drawing). The museum also offers 10 hourlong family audio tours.
"How Did They Do That?" -- a series of half-hour drop-in programs Dr. Norris instituted to teach families how a work of art like a suit of 16th-century armor or a Renaissance sculpture was created -- epitomizes the Met's emphasis on the art itself. "Never, ever dethrone the art," says Dr. Norris. At the Met, you don't have to.
The Dayton Art Institute is known to locals as "Dayton's living room," a reference to the fact that nearly all of Dayton comes together there. If the DAI is a living room, the museum's Experiencenter, an interactive family gallery, is a rumpus room -- a place where kids can do as much as they view.
"We add activities that will help children understand the art, the form and the function of it, even as they have fun," says Susan Anable, director of education. Case in point: For "Dutch Treat: Rembrandt and Friends," a kids' exhibition opening in June to support DAI's special installation "Rembrandt and the Golden Age," the Experiencenter will have a dress-up area. "Since Rembrandt's subjects are usually formally dressed, we'll encourage kids to dress up and stand behind a picture frame," says Anable. "We'll take Polaroids-modern-day portraits-of them, helping to make the connection between their own portrait and those by Rembrandt they can see in the galleries."
The interactive multimedia exhibit in the Kimball Education Gallery, which focuses on pre-Hispanic art, traditional African art, and 20th- century American painting. Kids can learn Mayan hieroglyphs or color an image of a Mayan stone.
Located in Golden Gate park, the De Young Museum's landmark new building, featuring a dramatic copper facade, is a work of art itself. And its substance even exceeds its style.
In addition to conveniences such as family bathrooms and a cafe featuring organic food, the museum offers kids activities such as after-school art classes, theater performances, and stories read by docents. More than 1,000 school classes are expected to visit the museum this year. Considered a national leader in art education, the De Young recently published Get Smart With Art, six curriculum guides in social studies, visual arts, and language arts for students in grades 4 to 8. It has also received a President's Council on Arts and the Humanities award for its Museum Ambassador program, which educates low-income high school students in art and trains them to teach school-age children.
Art Cat is the mascot of family programming at the Carnegie Museum of Art, and his feline curiosity and irrepressible spirit are evident at the museum, especially on his popular audio tour. "We're all about fun here -- an investigative, curious kind of fun," says Marilyn Russell, curator of education. "We give contextual information, but we don't feel that, for instance, learning the definition of baroque is what's meaningful to most people," she says. "There needs to be a reason for looking at artwork that was made a long time ago other than someone says you should look at it. It has to have meaning for a contemporary viewer -- especially if that viewer is a child."
Russell's staff and the installations that they produce encourage kids to talk about what they see as opposed to the artwork itself. "We have a painting by Alfred Bierstadt of seals in the water, and we talk about what the animals might be doing," she says. "We get kids to imagine they're in the painting and what that experience might be like. We like creative, open-ended thinking. We encourage kids to find their own reasons for being drawn to art."
Started in 1997 as an experimental space to test new ways of showing art to people of all ages, the Boone Children's Gallery at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art has evolved in recent years -- as has the encyclopedic museum itself -- into a space that's especially inviting to families. "Several years ago, our director challenged the entire institution to form a plan to welcome young people," recalls Jane Burrell, assistant vice president of education.
The result was a refocused Boone Children's Gallery, which features hands-on exploration (kids visiting the just-departed "The Pharaoh's World" installation got to wrap a mummy in linen), and the "NexGen" program, which offers free membership to children under 18 (LACMA is the only museum in our survey to do so). Even better, with their membership, NexGen kids can bring an adult with them -- for free.
Beyond the grand, imposing facade of the Joslyn Art Museum -- one of this country's finest examples of art deco architecture -- is a permanent installation far different in tone: an engaging, refreshingly easy-to-grasp exhibit for families called "Art Quest: Learning to Look." The exhibition consists of reproductions of 32 works in the museum's collection, along with tutorials on how to approach each piece. Part of the fun is a gallery hunt that guides visitors to the original works of art to test their new visual skills.
"We try to provide parents with the tools they need to help themselves and their kids," says Nancy Round, interim curator of education. "If you don't have an art background, a museum can be very intimidating. Art doesn't always speak for itself; we like to help it speak to you." A delightful example: The museum has nine themed Art Packs -- backpacks filled with information and child-friendly activities such as matching games and scavenger hunts -- families can borrow while they're touring the galleries.
There's a 60-acre naturalistic garden on the sprawling Winterthur estate (now a house museum). And within that garden is a magical three-acre area for children dotted with animal sculptures called the Enchanted Woods, open year-round. "Henry du Pont attributed his eye for beauty, which led to our art collection, to his appreciation of the flowers in his family's garden," says Tracey Beck, director of educational programs. "We set out to create a garden that would welcome children and honor that legacy without feeling like a playground."
Visitors enter through a serpentine path and encounter The Story Stones, which are arranged like a mini-Stonehenge. On select days, a storyteller talks about what kids originally did in the garden. From there, a troll bridge leads to a Fairy Cottage ("It's funky because fairies, being flighty creatures, don't always finish what they start," says Beck, "so the walls aren't flush and the roof isn't finished") and a mushroom ring. Monthly during the school year (and weekly in the summer), local teenagers portray fairies -- more Shakespearean than Disney -- and one of them sprinkles fairy dust on the children she meets.
The Dallas Museum of Art has, as deputy director Bonnie Pitman says, "taken this pre-Columbian pot and run with it." The "pot" is a Peruvian vessel from the museum's Ancient Art of the Americas collection that's shaped like a parrot. From it was born Arturo, a colorful parrot that, true to his breed, makes his presence known.
The lovable mascot narrates a portion of the DMA's free family audio tours (there are two designed for 5- to 8-year-olds, one for 9- to 12-year-olds). Family members each get a hand-held audio device so they can hear and talk to one another. And on special days, Arturo leads families through the collections. "At one time, we had an Anselm Kiefer landscape encrusted with sunflower seeds," explains Pitman. "Arturo always pointed it out, saying he'd love to eat it!" On late nights, Arturo (with a professional instructor) even leads a yoga class for kids in the gallery. Afterward, the children head upstairs to view some of the DMA's Hindu art "so they make the connection," says Pitman. "We do something similar where we have a young child teach other children Hindu dancing in front of our Shiva Nataraja, a bronze sculpture of the Hindu god Shiva, lord of the dance. For us, it's all about making the connections. We're aiming to create a lifelong engagement with art."
Founded in 1799, the Peabody Essex Museum is the oldest continuously operating U.S. art museum, yet you wouldn't know it to stand in the atrium inside the modernistic main entrance. The highlight for families is the Art & Nature Center, a 2,000-square-foot hands-on area for families and elementary school groups designed to support the museum's natural history collections and to highlight the connections between art and nature -- all in the most delightful, kid-engaging ways.
"Nature is a great starting point for families -- even those who've had no previous experience with art," points out Jane Winchell, curator of natural history and director of the center. "Kids have an experience with nature in their backyards, and we use that as a springboard to look at how people from different cultures and times look at nature and create art." The space offers more than 20 hands-on play stations -- organized around phrases, such as "find form," "touch texture," and "look for details" -- plus related activity boxes and picture books.
You can make your child's visit to an art museum more meaningful if you plan ahead. Here, Susan Delson, editor in chief of Museums for Families magazine, tells you how.
Use a museum's Web site or downloadable family guides to search the collections for pieces that may be of special interest to your child. "If your daughter plays with dollhouses, search for a miniatures exhibit," suggests Delson. "If she likes ballet, see if your local museum has a Degas." A general rule: 3- to 5-year-olds love sculpture. Show your child your picks before you go, and gauge her response.
"It's vital to be realistic about your own expectations," says Delson. "One gallery and a snack in the cafeteria is a big day for any child. So plan to see one thing-one gallery or the sculpture garden." You can always extend your visit if your child is game. But when your child says he's had enough -- even if you've seen just a single painting -- head home.
Especially for your first few trips, avoid the crowd and extra fees associated with special exhibitions. Instead, visit the museum when it's typically less crowded -- on a weekday or at night.
Pack a pad and a pencil and encourage your child to draw in the gallery, or buy a postcard of an artwork she liked. Says Delson: "Either way, your child brings art back into your home and into her consciousness."
The following experts participated in the development of the survey: Maureen Caouette, Holden, MA-based director of the elementary division of the National Art Education Association; Susan Delson, editor in chief of Museums and Museums for Families magazines in New York City; Robert Frankel, director of museums and visual arts at the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington, DC; and Jim McMullan, an award-winning illustrator of picture books.
Museum of Modern Art (New York, NY)
Columbus Museum of Art (Columbus, OH)
Cincinnati Art Museum (Cincinnati, OH)
The Speed Art Museum (Louisville, KY)
Brooklyn Museum (Brooklyn, NY)
Norman Rockwell Museum (Stockbridge, MA)
Milwaukee Art Museum (Milwaukee, WI)
St. Louis Art Museum (St. Louis, MO)
National Gallery of Art (Washington, DC)
Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens (Jacksonville, FL)
Telfair Museum of Art (Savannah, GA)
North Carolina Museum of Art (Raleigh, NC)
Worcester Art Museum (Worcester, MA)
Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art (Kansas City, MO)
The Detroit Institute of Arts (Detroit, MI)
Baltimore Museum of Art (Baltimore, MD)
The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute (Williamstown, MA)
Phoenix Art Museum (Phoenix, AZ)
Portland Museum of Art (Portland, ME)
Orlando Museum of Art (Orlando, FL)
Allentown Art Museum (Allentown, PA)
Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago (Chicago, IL)
Boise Art Museum (Boise, ID)
Queens Museum of Art (Queens, NY)
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (Houston, TX)
Two art museums known for their extensive family programming are currently undergoing major renovations and were not considered for the survey. The Cleveland Museum of Art will be closed through July 2006, and several of the galleries at the Denver Art Museum are closed. Denver's construction is set to be complete this fall.
Many of our winning museums have Web sites packed with kid-friendly features. Here's a sample of the cool activities you and your child can do online:
Megan Othersen Gorman is a writer living outside of Philadelphia.
Copyright ? 2006. Reprinted with permission from the March 2006 issue of Child magazine.