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Kids And Museums: A Few Words

DenverPlay2I like kids, and I like to see kids in museums. But maybe with a few boundaries.

A feature article that appeared in recent days in several places — here it is in the Chicago Tribune, headlined Taking the Kids — and exploring an art museum in a new way — reminded me of an exchange of views I had on this just over a year ago with Christoph Heinrich, director of the Denver Art Museum.

I visited the museum last January, and at times it seemed that children were everywhere, but that they could have been anywhere. In other words, many were just playing — they may have been coloring, but some were just horsing around or talking, in ways unrelated to what was in the galleries. I took a couple of pictures: one, top left, of kids in Denverplaythe El Anatsui exhibition, and right below, of kids in the museum’s Spanish Colonial galleries.

My question is, if they could have been anywhere, wouldn’t all museum-goers benefit if they didn’t have to step around the kids to see art? (Some were more rambunctious in that El Anatsui show than my picture suggests.)

I know that will get some people angry, and I raised the issue with Heinrich. He made two very valid points. One, I was visiting during what was still Christmas break from school, and the museum (well, parts of it) was very crowded that day, with more children than usual.

What’s more, Heinrich said, Denver is a family town, and the museum must cater to families.

I agree. That’s why I liked reading the above-mentioned article, which talks about the museum’s “Backpacks and Art Tubes,” the former “full with artmaking, games, and puzzles” and the later for those that are “Short on time.”

As the article put it:

…You can Live Like a Chinese Scholar in one exhibit or create an American Indian horse mask in another. Become a detective, as you make your way through the furniture gallery.

Did I mention these backpacks are yours to borrow during your visit? That they’re designed for different age groups, including preschoolers? If you are short on time, the kids can grab an Art Tube with one simple activity, like decorating special eyeglasses to enhance your viewing pleasure. This might explain why on weekends and during school breaks one in four visitors to this museum are kids. And, given Denver’s large Hispanic population, every activity is bilingual.

You’ll also find hands-on family activities throughout the museum. For younger kids, there is a dress-up area where they can try on Chinese robes and make their own paper robe….

DenverPaintStudioThe writer, Eileen Ogintz, continues with more  and adds a little about what’s going on at a few other museums, too. All of the activities are about art and art-making, not just playing. And in Denver, the backpacks and art tubes are just two of the many available “Kids & Families” activities and programs.

At the time I was there, the Denver museum also had a Paint Studio, designated for experimenting with paint, adjacent to a contemporary art exhibit, as I recall. It’s at right.

So let me repeat — lest I be misinterpreted — I want to see children in museums as much as anyone. But I do think there are boundaries, and I applaud the museums, like Denver, that are working hard to make the link with art and artmaking clear, even if they are not always successful.

Photo Credits: © Judith H. Dobrzynski  


  1. Judith – I too saw that Tribune story, and was quite pleased that the Denver Art Museum’s family programs were getting this attention, which I think is richly deserved. As a parent of a 2 1/2 year old, I can personally attest to the quality and quantity of their kids programming – frankly better than I have ever seen at a major art museum. My daughter’s favorite cultural in Denver to visit is DAM – pretty astonishing given the competition (Childrens Museum, Museum of Nature and Science, Zoo. etc.). I am sure there is a component of the family traffic that impinges on the enjoyment of others, and probably some of that is “just” play. But from what I have seen the Museum has designed these activities really well. Many of the museum’s curatorial sections have discrete family activities areas that are set off from the main galleries with thematic activities tied to those galleries, such as the family room in the Native American collection galleries. And where there is no education staff present, it is up to the parent to emphasize the tie to the art, so it is not just a coloring actitivity, for example. And it tickles me no end that my daughter, at 2, LOVES the Nick Cave installation, likes to play make believe that she is “doing a Nick Cave dance”, inspired by his soundsuits, and can identify his work on sight. I think we need more of this, not less. Kudos to DAM!

    • we don’t disagree at all, Gary — so thanks for your comment. I like your addition, “where there is no education staff present, it is up to the parent to emphasize the tie to the art, so it is not just a coloring actitivity, for example.” Very good point.

      • And actually, if I had one criticism of the kids areas in the Museum, it is that most of the time there are no staff or volunteers around. I realize staffing these areas may be tough, even with volunteers, but it seems to me a special effort should be made to have volunteers there, at least on the weekends when so many kids and parents are present. it is a lost opportunity to help parents work with their kids to make the connection between the fun activities and the art… I may be motivated and equipped to do this without guidance, but not every parent is.

        Thanks, as always, for your thoughful commentary!

  2. Barbara Chalsma says:

    In the 1960s, when we took our very young children to art museums throughout Scandinavia, there were rarely other children visiting, let alone games or child-docents provided for them. We, their parents, taught them that museums are special places where we can look at amazing, exciting things, and that no one runs around with abandon because museums are not parks. We demonstrated enthusiasm and wonder, which was reflected in their responses. They still remember seeing Rauschenberg’s goat at Stockholm’s Moderna Museet.

  3. Andrew Decker says:

    Yes, boundaries, whether set by the parents, the people (teachers, presumably) who lead field trips to museums, or museum staff. Kids like to look and draw, and if they sit and draw, with supervision, that’s great. They also like and need to run around, which is great also, but not in most museums. (Is there a Museum of Playgrounds yet?)

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