Friday, September 13, 2013

Art, Enchantment, Museum and a Three year old...

Pro and I with Van Gogh's Portrait of a Peasant
(Norton Simon Museum)
The ongoing debate concerning museums and how to engage viewers reminds me of a Punch cartoon depicting a Victorian working-class couple's dilemma of what to do on a Sunday - The Sunday Question: The Public-House; or The House for the Public? I love this cartoon not only for its revelation of a time when going to a museum was the alternative to drinking at the pub on Sunday but that museums were thought of as a 'House for the Public.'  There have been many articles circulating in social media lately on the subject of the museum experience and in order to avoid being redundant, for those who have not seen them all by now, I would like to refer you to an excellent post by Alli Burness in Museum in a Bottle which includes a succinct recap of all the media frenzy over the future of museums and public engagement. I take a very personal interest in all of this because museums have always been my places of refuge, where I could make sense of the world by viewing magnificent expressions of the human experience. It is strange that even an existential experience is open to the criticism and censure of others.  Of course everybody has an opinion but what I find really baffling is the critique of how people should experience art - the conversation covers a wide spectrum from lamenting the good old times when viewers would contemplate a work of art in quiet dignity, to a tantrum of an opinion piece requesting more fun activities similar to the ones available for kids and some museum professionals ready to pounce on anyone seen taking a picture, screaming "Off with her head!"

Pro contemplating  For Beginners by Bruce Nauman

Shouldn't the business be about advocating the experience - the great pleasure, enlightenment, fun or lightening of spirit to be had in front of a great work of art? Now would probably be a good time to disclose that I take photos with my smartphone in museums, lots and lots of photos... and a more intense museum-goer, they would have a hard time finding than myself. When it comes to looking, I agree with what Ms Burness calls 'the wondrous circle of looking' - I go into the zone as soon as I enter the space and tune out everything, from my phone to the throngs of tourists milling about. As soon as something catches my attention, I am lost... feeling, reacting, thinking, contemplating... But this, is not the case with most people of my acquaintance. So, can they not have just as rewarding an experience as I? Do museums have nothing to offer for the casual visitor? This cannot be the case, and it is high time everyone got off their high horses and mingled with the masses.

Pro in front of Sam Francis, Basel Mural, 1956-58
(Norton Simon Museum)

On my recent visit to Los Angeles, I was trying to convince my brother (a very intelligent and very well educated man of 43) that the best family outing on the weekends would be a visit to the LACMA or the Getty (lingering effects of the Punch Cartoon I guess). When I was extolling the sense of serenity as well as fun to be had in this type of setting, he replied that going to a museum was like homework - you had to look at every single work of art on view and read all the labels, trying to understand and retain it all.  I was shocked, the poor man thought this was a once in a lifetime chance, never to be repeated again... so you better look your fill. So, I gave him a free-pass, to just go and look at a few things that may attract his attention and then enjoy the cafe or maybe to sit quietly and contemplate a particular object or space. The museums in Los Angeles are very accessible for this kind of visit, they have all kinds of family friendly activities from free concerts to free admission for an adult accompanying a child up to 18 years of age besides the story times, art classes and play areas, plus great outdoor spaces to enjoy the incredible scenery and weather.

Pro with David Hockney's Muholland Drive:  The Road to the Studio, 1980
Just to make sure he does not turn out like everyone else in the family, I have been taking my nephew, Prometheus to museums since he was five months old. Of course the first year was purely for my own satisfaction but now that he is three, Pro is beginning to understand certain things, he is looking, asking questions and even pointing out certain details to me.  When I look at a work with him, it is almost as if I too am seeing it for the first time, it is both refreshing and thrilling.

Pro with Giacometti, Tall Figure IV, 1965
(Norton Simon Museum, Pasedena)
He even accompanied me, without too much incident, when I  visited the Norton Simon Museum last March, for the first time.  This was a bit of a challenge since I wanted to see the whole museum and they didn't have any material that was especially designed for children. We had to make do with the brochure of the museum showing "the highlights" and made a mystery game of finding those paintings.  This gave me some time to enjoy looking at some wonderful masterworks while Pro went searching for the particular work pictured or something I asked him to find. Norton Simon is really a jewel of a museum but it is not what I would call a kid-friendly place. I had never noticed before the placement of paintings on the walls, probably because they were always at just the right height for me. When you have a three year old and you want to show him an image he can take back with him like beautiful horses, dogs, or queens on thrones it is almost impossible unless you carry him. I kept on thinking they should provide special steps just for kids so they too can see the works at the right height. Another problem we ran into concerned the other visitors. Are museums supposed to be like libraries? During the whole of our visit I kept on thinking if it is wise to bring children to art museums, are these places for adults only? I didn't want to disturb the other visitors and luckily we didn't cause a major scene, no one looked annoyed except for a couple in the last gallery. They made some unpleasant comment about being quite but at that moment it didn't matter since, Pro was dragging me by the hand calling out  "Auntie, look, a Bird!" as we were running towards Tiepolo's Triumph of Virtue and Nobility over Ignorance.

Getty Villa. Malibu

During my two weeks in LA, Pro and I ran around and played among monumental installations at LACMA, went into outer space and saw the Space Shuttle Endeavour at the Science Museum and even went on a safari and rolled down the hills of the Page Museum but the most memorable experience of all had to be the day we spent at the Getty villa in Malibu. Since getting dressed in the mornings is one of the biggest issue in his life, Pro noted that the nude statues hadn't "gotten ready yet" as we walked around the galleries. He was mesmerized as were we with the pool in the middle of the peristyle courtyard and impressed with the wall paintings mentioning he wanted to paint the walls of his room the same way. The highlight of our visit to the Getty Villa was definitely the family room. I thought this was the most ingenious way to engage kids with ancient art and culture. They had an area where kids got geared up with foam accessories and shadow-pose as ancient figures from vase paintings.  This is an activity that thrills people from all age groups including the parents who are gleefully taking pictures of their little warriors or athletes on the other side. I got a chance to take a picture with both Joy (playing the lyre on the right) and Pro (far left) in the same frame. The other activity in this room was Greek vase painting; they have tables and sideboards set up with plenty of vases and urns ready for kids to paint. The markers are easily wiped away after they are done playing. While he was working on decorating his water jug, we talked about what the jug was used for. This room was the best thing I had seen in LA and I was sorry when we had to leave. (Although the Getty Institute also had some amazing activities, but I didn't have Pro with me when I went to visit so I could only observe and make plans for next time)

Now, some may question the wisdom of taking a three year old around to museums, showing him things he cannot possibly understand but even as adults aware of the importance of the objects on display are we not trying to get to that level of basic looking and reacting to objects, to capture that naif sense of wonder?  I don't know if Pro will remember all that we did together but I do hope I have instilled in him the sense of wonder to be experienced at those big halls filled with works of arts. Besides, going to museums is a cultural habit that has to be acquired and the earlier this becomes a part of ones life the better. 

Museums need regular visitors that keep coming back to truly fulfill their mission. In order for this to happen, the museum has to be an integral part of the community not some point of interest full of curiosities. If only we can get the populace in the door, then we can worry if they are actually looking at the art or just taking Selfies to post on their Facebook page. Even in such cases, aren't they retaining something from the experience...

Pro spellbound before Barbara Kruger's Untitled (Shafted)


  1. Dear Sedef,
    How do I begin to tell you how much I love this post? That Hockney is one of my all time favorites; LACMA, too. Is there still a big area for kids in the older building nearby? I love that you're taking your 3 year old nephew to experience all of this - he's lucky to have such an inspiring and generous aunt! The room in the Getty sounds like pure genius. When my son was 3, I took him to the San Diego Art Museum, just the two of us, and after looking at the sculpture made of recycled items he could recognize, he was mesmerized by a video installation - a small room with a bench in the middle and videos of people sleeping on all four walls. Why? Who knows! But he sat there for quite awhile, wide awake, contemplating, I guess.

    Regarding casual visitors to museums - I think you're right on the mark. I find that a little irreverence can go a long way -it's ok to laugh and have fun in an art museum! It's too bad that a barrier exists - I wonder if people know what they're missing. An hour long docent tour and/or looking things up on a smartphone as one goes through can make all the difference.

    Thanks for another lovely post!

  2. Karen,
    Thank you! I feel I am the lucky one in having a young charge who will go along with me and let me see familiar things from a new perspective. Even when they can't quite articulate what it means to them, children have a way of interacting with art and museums that is so fresh. One thing I did not mention in the post was how Pro reacted to the exhibit at the Norton Simon 'Beyond Brancusi: The Space of Sculpture' It was very interesting his reaction was instantaneous, he started to point out objects that caught his eye and then we played :) Some of those works are such fun peaces to walk around and look through. I hope we can continue our expeditions as he gets older.

    Thank you for leaving a comment. It's inspiring to get feedback.


  3. The most interesting blog I have ever read ! I agree with all that Karen has said.


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