The Night Watch,Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669)When my children were eight and five, we planned a trip to Europe. My daughter had not been there since she was two and this would be my son's first trip there. I was eager to show them where I came from and I wanted to share some of the same things I was exposed to when I was in elementary school in Amsterdam. I told my kids how once a week, fifth graders would take a field trip to the Rijksmuseum and a docent would give a lecture on one masterpiece. I also told them about our nervous snickering when once a nude was the subject of the week.
I set forth on my brainwashing mission six months prior to the trip. On our weekly trips to the Palo Alto Children's library, I started to toss children's art history and artist biography books in our basket. We read biographies of Rembrandt, da Vinci, and Monet and I brought out my coffee table books on Van Gogh and the Getty Museum. We solved jigsaw puzzles of Monet's water lilies and the Garden at Sainte-Adresse and played the Art Memo concentration game.
My son decided that Van Gogh was his favorite artist and my daughter was eager to visit Monet's garden at Giverny just like Linnea did.
Our first art stop was the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, our kids made a bee line for Rembrandt's Nightwatch. They wanted to see if they could discern where the canvas was repaired after a maniac slashed it in 1975. They wanted to see for themselves just how big it really was and they wanted to imagine the painting before it was cut off on all four sides in order to fit it between two columns. They mourned the fact that two characters were lost due to this unfortunate "cropping" of the painting.
When they chose to spend close to a half hour in front of this one painting, I had tears in my eyes, because I then knew my efforts paid off.
Photo by ijansch at Flickr
At the Louvre, they naturally wanted to see "Mona Lisa" like every one else, but there were hoards of people standing in front of them and they encapsulated poor Mona in a box since I last saw her making it nearly impossible to enjoy the painting. They didn't stay long and asked to see Vermeer's "Lacemaker". They couldn't get over how tiny it is, I had to pick my son up so he could see, and they were impressed with the minute details in the painting.
Photo by ijansch at Flickr
Throughout our trip, our read-aloud book every night was From the Mixed-Up Files from Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, a book about a brother and sister who ran away from home to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Our children laughed with glee when the main characters crossed the velvet rope to sleep in a sixteenth century bed and they were curious to see a sarcophagus like the one where Claudia hid her violin “suitcase”.
I used Rick Steves' Mona Winks: Self-Guided Tours of Europe’s Top Museums for all practical information like museum hours, location, and for tips on getting the best deal on ticket prices. Steves’ hint to use the side entrance to the Louvre saved us precious time. The book does a very good job giving the lay of the land up front and then describes the most famous works of art within the walls of these museums. He gives a brief history of this hit parade of art with accompanying black and white thumbnail pictures. I followed his suggestion to break apart the book at the binding (this is very counter-intuitive if you are a publisher) and only carried relevant chapters with me.
We followed Steves' advice and went to the museum store first to choose everyone's favorite postcards of the artwork in the museum and used these as a basis for a treasure hunt. The last thing in the world my kids wanted to do was enter a museum and methodically stop at every painting. On the other hand, asking guards the location of a specific painting and running as quietly as possible through the halls was plain old fun. I learned that the key was to always remember to let them set the pace; I was happy they agreed to set foot in the museum in the first place.
Now, nine years later, my son still enjoys going to museums every few months, but my daughter, except for major exhibits like King Tut, prefers to go shopping with me.