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On Kids, Curators And Art Detectives

Hmmm. Last week, the Speed Art Museum announced “Art Detectives” quoting Henry David Thoreau: “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” No one can argue with that in the art context.

art-detective-2Art Detectives is an educational program for elementary, middle and high school students. With the kits the Speed provides,

Art Detectives mirrors the actual practices used by curatorial professionals when handling delicate pieces. This includes a favorite of the students: wearing white curator gloves while they learn the importance of preservation in a museum. Students discover the history and culture of the objects, as well as the valued aspects in an object. They gain a heightened awareness that allows them to look at art and museums from a more analytical perspective.

The museum has designed 12 different crates, each filled with eight objects, “real artworks and art objects from the education collection.”  People from the museum, I believe, visit the schools — “up to 4 classes in a day in a consecutive order.”

For example, one crate — marked “CREATE” — for 4th and 5th graders has these contents, which include a couple of prints.  Other crates focus on “criticize,” “design,” and so on, for different ages.

Once a schools picks and registers, the “adventure” begins:

Two facilitators roll an interesting looking crate into the classroom and begin unpacking on the provided tables. Inside are eight works of art, numerous tools, and other items worth investigating. The art works are placed on numbered and annotated mats with tools set to the side. It’s a mystery game come to life in the classroom.

As you can imagine, they help identify the contents, discuss them and then the students write about them — with descriptions, I hope. More answers to FAQ here.

I doubt this program is unique, though I can’t cite you others. But it’s worth sharing because it does make looking at art an adventure, kind of a game, without distorting the purpose — which is to truly observe.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Speed




  1. Anything to get the kids interested is a good thing but i have a problem with the white gloves bit. I think it is a fiction perpetrated by the conservators. While it may be beneficial with silver pieces where the oil on fingers can leave fingerprints they also hold risks that far outweigh the benefit.

    If you have a painting frame or anything with a slightly rough fabric the gloves can catch causing the wearer to pull a piece off of the object such as gold leaf on a frame. Even more dangerous if when holding glass or ceramic which can easily slip through the gloves.

  2. Thanks for sharing this. I think your program called Art Detectives is a novel idea to capture the enthusiasm of our youth. As a painting conservator for 38 years I understand the draw to the white gloves for play and believe it is an opportunity to show the wide variety of gloves we wear for specific purposes. Combining the detective work when researching an art work I liken to the excitement to panning for gold or finding Waldo. Yes other museums have had success with integrating school age programs. The American Institute for Conservation (AIC) has had presentations at our annual conferences and I believe a group of interested conservators was formed to keep spreading similar success stories. We have had success sharing with children because it opens up a world of cultural treasure hunting for our history. The care we give behind the scenes to our cherished collections is also a mystery and huge eye opener. If we engage the children we also engage their parents. I remember playing museum as a child and collecting. “Playing for Keeps” is fun and a goal to introduce to our youth and their parents. It is an eye opener to careers rarely understood. Good work!

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