The first art museum I consciously remember visiting was when I was a Sophomore in College studying abroad. It was the KunstHistorische Museum in Vienna, which we went to as part of the Art History class we were taking. That said, I could not name even one work of art I saw there.
My Senior year in college I traveled, with a group of fellow English majors, to different cities in order to see some Shakespeare plays as part of a Ford Foundation grant. While in Chicago to attend what turned out to be a particularly horrible production of “Troilus & Cressida”, we paid a visit to the Chicago Art Museum. The Andy Warhol exhibit was amazing (I remember a room full of balloons that you waded through and tossed around while looking at the Campbells soup cans) as were the Georgia O-Keefe paintings.
The point is, I was in my early 20’s the first time works of art in an art museum registered with me enough to be able to tell you something about them all these years later.
So this week when I was asked if I plan many outings to museums with my kids, I answered honestly. I used to, but I don’t anymore.
The reason is simple. The kids aren’t, at this moment, interested in going to museums. Every now and then something really extraordinary comes along (like the red & white quilt show last Spring) and we all go and enjoy it. Other than that, for the last 2 to 3 years my kids’ favorite thing about any museum is the gift shop. Yes, we visited museums in London, and thank goodness they were free or I would have felt it was money wasted. We can whip through the entire Natural History Museum here in NY in an hour (less, if Maya has her way.) Maya used to enjoy trips to the Met to sketch, and if asked will say her favorite museum is the Museum of Arts & Design located on Columbus Circle. Ben and I once spent an entire afternoon in the Egyptian wing at the Met, but the main reason was the reflecting pool that surrounds the Temple of Dendur. Ben was fascinated by all the coins and got to watch a museum employee dressed in rubber hip waders and wielding an instrument that was part rake, part squeegee, scoop up all the money and carry it away in buckets (to be donated to a local children’s charity).
For a while I tried to get them interested in exhibits I thought looked cool, but decided I’d be better served going to the museums on my own after dropping them off to play with friends or something. That way I could thoroughly enjoy the exhibit at my leisure, and they could thoroughly enjoy their friends.
The bottom line is that museums are great. But just like every other kind of learning, if the experience is forced on you, you probably won’t remember much about it later. Come to think of it, in Vienna I had to go to the museums as part of my class. In Chicago I chose to go.
No wonder Chicago is the one I remember.