Get The Most Out Of Your Art Museum Visit

Here’s a compelling reason to spend more time in art museums: Observing art can help us build life skills. “The study of art can enhance our perception, and our ability to translate to others what we see,” says Amy E. Herman, former museum educator and the author of “Visual Intelligence: Sharpen Your Perception, Change Your Life. 

” In her TED-Ed video, titled “How Art Can Help You Analyze,” Amy breaks down the skills involved in studying artwork, and they are:

  • conducting a thorough examination
  • analyzing the elements observed
  • articulating them succinctly
  • formulating questions to address inconsistencies and conspicuous absences (details that should be present but are not, such as a calendar without dates)

As a parent, you can help your children hone these abilities by encouraging meaningful interactions with art. Not sure where to begin? Let these expert tips lead the way. 

Skip the grand tour. “Enjoy the museum at your child’s pace, and don’t try to see everything in one visit,” says the Art Institute of Chicago in their parent education video. During your visit, devote time to the few pieces that your child expresses interest in, and once you sense your child is no longer engaged, it’s time to leave. For preschoolers, the Art Institute recommends playing a matching game, where children bring along pictures of selected artworks to search for the actual artworks in the museum. 

For older kids, the Art Institute suggests letting them explore the museum independently, as well as sitting together to sketch and share observations about a work that your child likes, if time and space permit. If exhibits are related to what your child is studying in school, this can be a springboard for discussion too.

Your opinion counts. “It doesn’t matter what the museum labels, the Wikipedia pages, or the textbooks say. Art becomes yours when you look at it,” says art teacher and museum educator Cindy Ingram. (She offers more advice on helping kids connect with art here.) Don’t be afraid to hazard a guess about the meaning or significance of an art piece—it can be fun to see how you or your child’s interpretation of a work differs from the artist’s intention. 

Use the “visual thinking strategies” method. You can read more about the method and its origins here, but what it boils down to is the repeated use of three questions to generate discussions about art:

  • What’s going on in this picture?
  • What do you see that makes you say that?
  • What more can you find?

For a better idea of how these questions help stimulate thinking, watch visual thinking sessions in action (with younger kids, and with older kids) before trying it with your child.

Don’t dismiss casual comments. In a discussion thread about engaging teens at the museum, Catherine Arias, now a museum director, recalls observing an educator’s interaction with teenagers who described a video exhibit as “crazy.” The educator’s response was, “What’s crazy about it?” In this way, the educator showed she valued the teenagers’ opinions, and “gently pushed them to explain further” by asking follow-up questions “in a non-threatening way.” 

Kids can learn to appreciate an art piece without touching it. Turn the viewing experience into a game, says museum educator Sarah Erdman. Some of her suggestions include:

  • Creating a scavenger hunt: Look for colours, shapes, and more.
  • Playing a movement game, where you ask kids to pose or move like figures in the artworks they see.
  • Asking kids, “What is the best (or worst) thing you’ve seen, and why?”

Click here for more of her game ideas.

Structure your experience with the help of an activity sheet. Kids who enjoy jotting their thoughts down may find activity sheets challenging, yet fun. The Smithsonian Institute has downloadable worksheets that you can use, with questions such as:

  • Does this exhibition have its own name? If so, what does the name say about the objects here?
  • What did I learn from the label that I wouldn’t have known just by looking at the object?
  • How would I describe this object to a friend?

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