Friday, March 6, 2009

How I Brainwashed My Kids To Come To Art Museums With Me

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.


LoisW said...

You did good!! When my kids were small, I used to take them to St. Louis and tell them we were in Ireland, of course, when we went to eat in Little Italy on the Hill, I told them we had driven to Italy. They thought Chicago was France... God, I loved it when my kids were little... you could scam them into anything! When I actually did go to Ireland, I told them a leprechaun had escaped from my luggage and was hiding in the back yard in a tree. That kept them busy for two years at least! Of course, when they took geography in school, they were a little confuse. But, hey, they got over it!

Anonymous said...

yes you can blog from the internut but the only friends who visit are sitting right next to you doing a puzzle in the 'library.' you have a wonderful sense of humor diana and thank you for missing me :)

such considered parenting! i am completely inspired and wish i had a little more access to olivia for this purpose of art appreciation lessons. all fun! you are amazing and i can only imagine what other wonderful educational things you gave your children over the years. i had a good time myself going on this tour with you.

Ruth said...


I discovered the postcard trick too late for my kids, alas. But I do it myself! Besides, now I have a great postcard art collection. I use them for bookmarks.

Actually this whole post is one big déjà vu! I loved loved loved the movie "The Mixed of Files . . ." so much. And when I studied abroad in college, I did the Mona Lisa/Nightwatch, but in reverse. It was so hard to get close to Mona Lisa, but I waited and waited. Then when I went to the Rijksmuseum, I noticed that here was this humongous painting and no one was standing in front of it! The irony was great, and I've never forgotten it. And here you are connecting those two paintings in your post. I call that synchronicity.

I wish I had known more about the painting like your kids do. I would have enjoyed it so much more. I am in the middle of watching my friends DVD series on the history and art of the Louvre, which is very good. I am one who thinks going to the Louvre is torture, and I tend to do "Louvre Lite" now. But it makes a ton of difference if you know specific works that you can make a bee line for.

If you're interested, here is my story about a certain work at the Louvre.

Dutchbaby said...

Dear Middle Aged,
You are so funny and creative! I spun wonderful tales like that to my kids. It would have been a good idea though.

Dear Robin,
I did not view this mission as a parenting task. I had purely selfish motivations; I couldn't bear the idea of going to Europe without being able to go to museums. I do love learning with them though!

I think you and Olivia would have great fun playing Art Memo in a few years. It is a fantastic way to expose kids to great works of art.

Dear Ruth,
I love using my postcards for the covers of my Circa notebooks.

There is a movie of Mixed-Up Files??? I'm going to have to find it on Netflix. Thanks for the tip.

The Nightwatch was my favorite painting when I was growing up. It's size makes it so accessible for young children.

I popped over to your Paris blog. I had to extricate myself from there so I could write you here. I plan to go back and read every post!

Rebekah said...

What a great gift you gave your kids - preparation for exposure to great art and the places it was created and resides on their level. Whether your daughter developed a heart for the art, wanting to see it again and again, or not, her life and your son's were greatly enriched by your very thoughtful instruction. I am sharing this with my daughter. Eli is not yet one, but Beth and Brad love the arts so much, I'm sure they can use your example as they teach him as can I. Hmmmm. Frequent saturday mornings at a museum. I'm liking the thought. Discussing art and its subjects can open discussions of so many other things, don't you think? Thank you!

Anonymous said...

It's a wonderful thing you've done for your children. My daughter was the same; she'd spend 20 minutes looking at one thing. Of course, she is an artist and was exposed to lots of art from the age of four. I'm sure your children will grow up to bestow their art appreciation on their own children. How lucky that your children got to see great masterpieces at a young age!

Anonymous said...

P.S. The Mona Lisa is no longer behind glass. She has her own special wing in the Louvre.

Midlife, menopause, mistakes and random stuff... said...

Oh WOW what beautiful pictures and what a fantastic blog you have going here dutchbaby!!
I too love a museum and visit them in every town, city, state and country that I visit. I just stand there, look and absord. I love it and could get lost in them. I feel like I'm in another time, you know??.......
If you have a moment or two of you life that you would like to waste, please visit me at my blog and say hello :)
Take good care and........

Steady On
Reggie Girl

Ruth said...

Wow, great! I wish I could keep posting at Paris Deconstructed, but I'm waiting for another visit!

Relyn Lawson said...

I love this. I really love it!!

I think Sloane was 11 months the first time she went to an art museum. I'd have to look it up in my journals, but I know she was less than one. Art museums are just a part of our lives. I knew I had her when she was about three.

We were in D.C. at the National Gallery. Jeffrey was letting Sloane lead the way and supervising her, leaving me to poke along and take all the time I wanted. I finished in one gallery and came around the corner. There was my baby plopped down on the floor in front of an enormous Picasso. She was rapt, enthralled.

I actually started crying, just a little. There are just moments when you know you are doing something really, really right. That was one for me.

I love how intentional you are as a parent. There is so much that I learn from you.

Dutchbaby said...

Dear Rebekah,
I'm not worried about my daughter's current disinterest in fine art; she has many other passions.

Dear Paris,
First of all, thank you so much for sending Rebekah this direction.

I am thrilled to learn that Mona has been release from her chamber!

Dear Reggie Girl,
All museum junkies are welcome to these pages! Welcome!

Dear Ruth,
Don't we all wish for another trip to Paris!?!

Dear Relyn,
This post was intended to show how selfish I was by brainwashing my kids just so I could go to museums on my vacations. I find it humorous that I'm reaping all this praise :) Don't stop, though. Everyone can use a little praise or encouragement ;)

I love your Sloane and Picasso story! I would have cried too.

A Cuban In London said...

Well done! What an uplifting tale! And don't dwell on your daughter preferring shopping nowadays, the important lesson is that they both have had a brilliant mother inspiring them all along.

Greetings from London.

Yoli said...

What a great job you have done! I too am guiding my little ones to the love of museums.

Dutchbaby said...

Dear Cuban,
Thanks! I'm hoping those experiences are just lying dormant for now.

Dear Yoli,
Good for you!

Relyn Lawson said...

Hey, I reread my comment just now because I wanted to tell someone else the story. I wasn't very clear, I don't think. The time in D.C, Sloane was three. It was her first museum visit that was less than one. Not that this matters, but I am anal that way.

Dutchbaby said...

Dear Relyn,
Oh goodie, someone who is just as anal as I. Be assured that the record now stands corrected.

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