The roomful of artists at the Art Institute of Chicago were concentrating intently on handcrafting miniature rooms, shaping their creations carefully out of bits of paper, fabric and pictures cut from glossy art catalogues, assisted by gentle suggestions from instructors leading the workshop.
Inspiration clearly flowed from table to table as the artists glued and cut. Grandmothers got ideas from toddlers, parents took leads from grade-school kids. This workshop was designed for serious artists who happened to range from preschoolers to those past retirement age.
"This is as much fun for me as for the kids," said Linda Dawe, a speech pathologist from suburban Chicago who was busy creating her own miniature room alongside her mother and 7- and 5-year-old daughters. "They think the art museum is a fun place."
That's precisely the point, of course. When traveling with our families, we sometimes opt for the obvious amusements of pools, parks or well-crafted tourist destinations. But cities around the United States can be home to unexpected fun in their art museums. From the Art Institute of Chicago to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, to smaller regional art centers, such as Santa Fe's Museum of Indian Arts and Culture--the message is the same: We've got plenty for families to do. Just give us a try.
"Children grow up and if you don't get them interested in museums as children, you won't get them as adults," said Jean Sousa, associate director in charge of the Art Institute's numerous programs for families. The museum even schedules workshops designed especially for grandparents and grandchildren. (Call the Art Institute at 312-443-3680 for program information.)
"Families offer the best potential for diversifying our audience," said Diane Brigham of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu (call 310-458-2003).
At the same time museums are opening their doors to families, parents are actively searching for ways to enrich their children's educations and, in the process, finding new activities to share. "I see the museum on a totally different level now and it's more fun," said Mary Beth Dermody, who also lives in the Chicago suburbs and was busy at the Art Institute workshop with her daughter.
The trick, museum educators say, is to make the experience fun, rather than a forced dose of culture.
But don't try to see it all or spend too many hours at once, said Evan Levine, who oversees youth publications for the Metropolitan Museum. She recommends planning the visit a bit before embarking. Get a copy of the museum map and decide which galleries you would like to see. Pick a theme, such as faces or nature. Ask the kids to try to imagine stepping inside a painting.
Here's another tip from museum educators: Stop at the museum shop on your way into the museum and buy a couple of postcards of famous works of art. Turn the visit into a treasure hunt. Some museums have institutionalized that practice. At the Getty, borrow a Gallery Game Box; pick up a Museum Hunt sheet at the Met.
Museums have plenty to choose from to engage children's interest, including art classes, performances and special family guides to exhibitions and galleries. The Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa Fe, for example, helps youngsters explore Native American culture by trying their hand at different crafts, such as pottery or weaving (call 505-827-6344).
"Bring a sketch book if the museum permits," said Lori Berenberg of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The museum lends them, in fact. (Call 617-267-9300.)
Taking the Kids appears the first and third week of every month.