A little photographic tour of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, a selection of the photos taken on our recent field trip with some notes about how I look at art with children.
Hint: it’s very similar to how I read literature with children. Not so much lecturing and instructing and more wonder and discussion and noticing. Though I have studied art history and so do know more than a little about artists and periods, I don’t think that’s at all necessary to enjoy your time in a museum. All you need is eyes to see and a mind to wonder and time to really look and discuss. Don’t try to see the whole museum in one trip. We try to pick a small area or two to focus on and only a few pieces in that area to really examine closely.
We began with musical instruments. The room is right near the entrance and ever since we got the MFA’s Musical Instruments eBook the children love going in there to find their old favorites and to see new ones. Knowing what the instruments sound like makes such a difference to their appreciation of them. We noted some new instruments: electric guitar and violin and piano. Bella noted the Japanese instruments that had been on display with the Hokusai exhibit we saw last year. Bella sketched a small drum or tambourine. So much to look at in the details of beautifully crafted instruments. I didn’t take many pictures, though.
Next, we headed toward the American wing, looking at art from the colonial period. Portraits of Paul Revere, John Hancock, John Adams, George Washington were favorites. I had a nice question and answer session with the Revere portrait, getting Ben and Anthony and Sophie to look more closely at the details. Anthony noticed that the teapot Revere is working on in the picture is in the display case next to the painting. Other notable pieces in this section of the museum included finials from a Torah scroll, Paul Revere’s silver, Watson and the Shark, a desk/bookshelf that we spent some time investigating, a couch that Sophie loved.
Everyone started to get grumblingly hungry at about 11:30 so we headed to lunch, but of course on our way to the cafeteria on the other side of the museum we looked at a bunch of things: a peek at a gallery of woodblock prints of London and Edo which the children were not interested in and so I didn’t get to really linger. Oh alas for the Hiroshige. We glanced at some curious modern pieces in an exhibit called #techstyle, high tech takes on the fashion world. Also, currently sprawling throughout the museum is an exhibit called Megacities Asia, we looked at several of those pieces: a sort of enclosure made of Chinese bicycles all stacked and connected together, a snake made of backpacks, a bunch of what looked something like Christmas ornaments, a gigantic breathing flower.
The children were remarkably well behaved at lunch in the cafeteria and then after we’d eaten we went back to find Bella’s beloved Impressionists. But first we stopped to see the Picasso exhibit, which Sophie particularly wanted to see. All the other children were rather disinterested, but Sophie and I examined most of the works in the space quite closely. She asked very interesting questions and made close observations about the lines and colors and compositions. Something about Picasso’s strangeness really challenged her and made her want to investigate further. Picasso has a new fan.
On the way to the Picassos we looked at an interesting grouping of figural sculpture in a new exhibit. A favorite was a portrait of Beethoven, looking stern with clenched fists and furrowed brow. Sophie posed like him with her fists clenched and her chin tucked in. There was also one titled The Lovers which the card said had also at times been labeled as a mother and child and as a Pieta. I was intrigued by the idea that this piece could be seen in three such different ways. I let Sophie investigate it before reading the card to see what she’d make of it. She also thought mother and child rather than lovers. We did our favorite thing: to pose like the sculpture, me putting my hands on her head like the figure in the piece.
At last we went up the stairs to the Impressionist galleries, the children going up the stairs while I took the stroller up the elevator. They looked at an installation along the gallery at the top of the stairs– paired cups and bowls grouped by color on these enormous metal support structures with led lights illuminating them from the inside. Then we moved on to the Impressionists, which has been reorganized and moved about since we were last here. A whole room dedicated to Monet where we lingered for a long time. Bella spent some time sketching a Munch. Lucy and Anthony and Sophie also pulled out sketchbooks to draw. Bored Ben worked on his map reading skills to find the precise gallery we were in on the museum map. We walked through a medieval gallery briefly, one from Regency England, and then the Chinese furniture. We ended with the children choosing postcards at the gift shop, each got two or three to add to their personal bedside galleries.
I try to pick on or two works in each gallery to talk about with a child. Whichever child is close at hand and seems interested, they rotate. This way each child looks closely at at least one or two pieces with me during the course of a day in the museum. It’s not belabored, just asking a few questions, answering them, making some observations of my own, maybe reading a little of the informational card or giving them some historical or biographical information about the artist or some context for the work. Sometimes telling them the story of a work’s subject if there is a story. Like Cupid and Psyche, King Lear, something about Pompeii.
When we get home they have another chance to report to Daddy what they saw and remembered. And then there are their postcards to hang which give them all a chance to continue to develop a relationship with their own favorite works. Today Anthony and Sophie each recognized a piece they’d seen previously and had a postcard of. Mostly I want the museum to be a familiar and comfortable place, not a foreign land. I want them to have relationships with artworks, to find their own footing in a painting, to learn how to observe and discuss art and to look more closely and think and wonder about what they see. I think our membership to the MFA is one of our most valuable homeschooling investments.