The National Gallery of Art
How do you approach such a large museum as the National Gallery of Art when you know it will be a relatively short visit and it’s hard to decide where to start? You can get materials in the information room just off the rotunda. They have family guides (geared toward children ages 6 and up) on Dutch Art and American Art. They are great for exploring these areas with older kids, and they will give you some ideas for looking around with your younger child. Here is where it’s really good to try to look from your child’s perspective. Don’t look at it as a Learning Experience for your child (really, everything they do at this point is a Learning Experience); approach it as a fun and exciting adventure.
It’s exciting just to enter the Rotunda of the West Building. You step into a grand and glorious space: from a toddler’s perspective, you see unimaginably high ceilings with a dome overhead, so many giant columns you definitely can’t count them, and a large fountain in the middle with some guy with crazy little wings here and there. Depending on your child’s age, you can talk about the surroundings: How does this place make you feel? Does it feel like our house? Does it feel like an important place? Who is the guy above the fountain? Why do you think he needs those little wings? (Mercury, bronze, 1750-1850, Giovanni Bologna). The key thing is, you don’t need to have any answers at this point. Your child will have some questions and ideas, and you can explore them–it’s fine for them to come up with their own story about why someone would need wings on their hat and their shoes.
As you go through the main hall, you might see a painting that catches your eye. You can look for things your child is interested in and start there. One of my kids was obsessed with cats. We would go on a treasure hunt for cats, sadly finding that there were more dogs than cats in paintings, at least in our surveys. Horses are another good one, or animals in general.
Children in paintings are very appealing to children. Ask your child if they think they’d be friends with the person in the painting. Ask what they think of the subject’s clothes or hair; that will let your child look carefully and thoughtfully. You could bring up the point that the people in the painting lived a long time ago; maybe there are clues in the painting that tell you something about what their lives were like. (Dutch genre paintings, galleries 50 and 51)
Portraits are great to look at with young kids because they are often full of clues about the sitter. Folk art portraits of children are especially fun because the works are often whimsical and very direct. (gallery 63) They are appealing to children (and many adults, of course!) and often contain animals, flowers, or small toys. Your child may surprise you with their comments or observations about these works.
I always like to visit Ginevra de’ Benci (gallery 6) Besides being one of the few existing portraits by Leonardo da Vinci (and the only one in America), it is displayed so you can look at the front and back of the painting. The back contains interesting symbols that can tell you more about the sitter. With a young child, you could talk about who this person is, does she look happy or sad, look at the details of her clothes and hair; and why would the artist paint on the back of the painting?
As you’re heading toward or leaving your gelato/coffee treat, be sure to walk or moving-sidewalk through Multiverse, Leo Villareal, 2008. This is a tunnel of tiny LEDs that constantly change patterns and it’s really cool. You get to be part of the art. When you come out near the cafe, you can also look at the wall of water coming down from the fountains outside on the plaza between the East and West Buildings.
If You Want More Information
Good news! The National Gallery has a free iphone app that lets you do all kinds of prep very easily. Great if you’re not the “wander-in-and-see-what-we-find” type, or if you want to get more information while you’re in the galleries. It’s called “Your Art.” With it, you can look at a kids’ tour or collection highlights tour by artist’s name, nationality, or the works’ theme. The app provides a gallery map with paintings on the tour highlighted, and you can also use it for the museum’s audio tours. It is a wonderful thing! But remember: just because you’ve prepped for a visit doesn’t mean your child will be any more or less interested, so let them take the lead with your gentle guidance. And have fun!