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Column: Taking kids to an art museum over the holidays? Here’s our survival guide

Chris Morris / For The Times
(Chris Morris / For The Times)
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It’s the holidays, the kids are out of school, and you love them, you really do, but you have to get them out of this house. Or you have family in town who want to spend time with the kids and see the sights. Or you and the family are on your own trip to some far-off, previously unexplored metropolis.

Whatever the scenario, you find yourself thinking, “Let’s go to an art museum.” Art museums are fun, art museums are pretty but also educational, and kids know they need to be quiet.

Hahahahahaha.

No, seriously, they do, usually — and if they forget, there are actual guards, in uniforms, to remind them. (I still remember taking my two oldest to the Vatican museum when they were 5 and 3; the Sistine Chapel was, as advertised, glorious, but what really took my breath away was the guy whose sole job was to say “Silenzio” in a very deep and serious voice every few minutes. If only they had a replica of him in the gift shop.)

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Still, it can be daunting to take people between the ages of 12 months and 12 years to any museum that does not feature a large dinosaur exhibit or a hands-on water feature. But like any journey involving children, it will also allow you to see things, including and especially art, in a completely different way. So here are a few survival tips.

1. Identify the accompanying adult who does not need to see every blessed thing in the place. In our family, that’s me. I learned early on that my husband’s idea of visiting an art museum was to start at the first burgermeister/fruit bowl/dreary landscape and move inch by inch until he had seen each and every item on display and read every placard available. (I once caught him completely absorbed in a five-language explanation of what to do in case of fire, until it was pointed out that this was not, in fact, art.) I, on the other hand, have about 2 ½ hours in me, three if it is broken up by a nice lunch.

2. If you are taking children who are old enough to walk but too young to understand where they should meet you should they become separated from the group, dress them in easily described outfits (and if you are in a foreign city, learn how to communicate the necessary descriptors in the native tongue). I was recently looking at pictures we took when visiting the Louvre and my youngest daughter wore a red-and-white striped dress and pink boots. Not her best look, but even in the crush at the Louvre, hard to miss.

3. If there are coats involved, check them. I know, it’s expensive and there’s always a line, but if you don’t check the coats then you will wind up carrying all of them (hot, irritating) and at least one of them will get left on some bench somewhere, most likely very far away from the point of discovery. Or even worse, you’ll have to go back the next day, a true vacation bummer.

4. I will not insult your parental intelligence by mentioning the need for water, snacks, wipes, tissues and, if there is a baby involved, all that requires. Also at least one blanket, a hand towel and some Advil. Honestly, most of us should never leave the house without at least one blanket, a hand towel and some Advil.

5. Bringing a sketch pad and colored pencils or crayons is good — inevitably the kids will see art students at work and want to imitate them — but there is also nothing wrong with taking a mid-visit break in the gift shop for same. Like many people, I was raised to believe that the gift shop should only be visited at the end of a trip and earned by good behavior. Certainly bribery is a healthy part of successful parenting but there’s nothing wrong with meeting kids’ needs or interests when they have them; getting kids to draw in an art museum is a beautiful thing, no matter how it happens.

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6. Do some research, even if it means simply looking at the map as you enter. Pick the things you want to see — I am basic so I always insist on the Impressionists — and then figure out the best way to get there while still enjoying other rooms. We’ve had a lot of success with “let’s find the [dogs, birds, swords, yellow flowers],” though if you have young children, please emphasize the importance of pointing, not touching. (Years later, I can still see the Getty guard’s blanched face as my 4-year-old raced with outstretched hand to Van Gogh’s irises.) Unfortunately, if you have more than one child this can quickly devolve into an “I saw it first” competition, so sometimes family finds work better. If you celebrate Christmas, choosing paintings that would make good holiday cards is fun; cool places to live or best battle scenes work too.

7. Based on my own experience (three kids, many museums), most children like Van Gogh, Degas, naked people, armor and statues. They also like having their pictures taken posing like people in the paintings and especially the statues. Since I am one of those people immediately infuriated by anyone taking pictures of paintings (there are posters in the gift shop, pal), this only works if the room is fairly empty. If your kids are older, coming up with funny captions also works, but only if you can do it very quietly.

8. If your kids are mature enough to wander a bit on their own, let them find things to show you. Our elementary school had a “Masters” program, and my son especially liked to find the paintings, or artists, he knew and bring us to them.

9. Locate the bathrooms on the map immediately on entry. By the time kids tell you they have to go, you have approximately two minutes. I still encourage my children to use the restroom whenever we pass one, and the oldest is now 21 (he does not appreciate the reminder).

10. Take breaks. In the garden, in the gift shop and especially the cafe. Most museums have nice cafes, which almost always serve caffeine-based beverages (crucial) and often very good children’s meals. Everyone feels better after they’ve sat down for a bit and eaten something (though try to avoid peak lunchtime if you can).

11. Be prepared to leave. If you are somewhere you may never be again and your child is small or going through a tantrum phase, try to see what you absolutely need to see as quickly as possible so if your kid should melt down, you can leave with no bitterness in your heart. Because kids melt down. They just do. And sometimes it cannot be handled by anything short of vacating the premises — this is a museum, after all, not Chuck E. Cheese. If anyone gives you the side-eye as you move your child toward the exit, simply ask: “Oh, so you think we should stay?”

12. Don’t make it a test. Even if your kid is not of noisy-meltdown age, dragging him or her through a museum is not going to foster art appreciation or good family relations. If your child is older and done with the whole thing, there is nothing wrong with letting him or her sit somewhere with a book or a snack or even (gasp) a personal device while you continue. This does not mean your child is a spoiled rotten, heartless philistine who will never appreciate art. It just means “not today.”

13. Remember that some day the “I’m ready to leave now” situation may be reversed. At the last museum we visited as a family, I was the one who called it quits first (that “step, step, slide, stand” is so hard on the knees, isn’t it?). I went to the cafe, had a coffee, bought some sweeties and waited for my children to find me, which they did, one by one, after they were done. And then, as the museum was closing, I sent my son to find his father.

Because otherwise, we’d still be there.


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Mary McNamara is a culture columnist and critic for the Los Angeles Times. Previously she was assistant managing editor for arts and entertainment following a 12-year stint as television critic and senior culture editor. A Pulitzer Prize winner in 2015 and finalist for criticism in 2013 and 2014, she has won various awards for criticism and feature writing. She is the author of the Hollywood mysteries “Oscar Season” and “The Starlet.” She lives in La Crescenta with her husband, three children and two dogs.