High Art & Little People: Why Galleries & Kids Do Mix

5 August 2016

We’ve been in Sydney’s Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) for less than 15 minutes and my five-year-old daughter has already run up to a gilded Eko Nugroho statue and attempted to hug it, triggering a security guard to stride over and stop the overly familiar exchange.

“See?” I say to my mother out of the corner of my mouth as I tug my daughter away from the artwork and towards the stairs. “This is why I don’t take her to art galleries.”

 The Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera exhibition is on until October 9, 2016 at AGNSW. (Image: Cassandra Laffey)

I’m at AGNSW to see the Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera exhibition (on until October 9, 2016), and introduce one of my favourite artists to my offspring. Turns out, as deftly demonstrated by my daughter, my reticence is borne of the notion of galleries as austere spaces, where artworks should be viewed in hushed silence and reverence, surely the exact opposite of children? It’s an idea Head of Learning & Participation at AGNSW Heather Whitely Robertson says is out of touch with modern-day museums.

“It is a fear that a lot of parents and carers have about the perception of an art gallery and I think that comes from a very historical perception of galleries and museums being like churches or libraries, but 21st-century museums look quite different to that,” Heather says. “We welcome noise because it’s generally about engagement and looking.”

 Engaging with the artworks. (Image: Cassandra Laffey)

With stints at Tate Modern and the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and at MCA and NGV in Sydney and Melbourne respectively, Heather has been involved in creating a variety of family programs that encourage participation and provide a stimulating environment to support temporary exhibitions. However she does acknowledge children touching priceless artworks is a genuine and real concern for parents. (Case in point…)

“Obviously there are works that are worth millions of dollars and we can’t touch them because it damages them. So a lot of the focus is about trying to help children find ways that they can have a tactile and sensory experience without touching the work, but also respecting that children are really responsible if given a little piece of knowledge so they understand,” Heather explains.

“It doesn’t mean it’s easy because some works, quite frankly, people do want to touch, and it’s not just the children!” she adds in a mock whisper.

 Checking out the augmented reality within the Mogao cave, part of the Tang exhibition at AGNSW. (Image: Cassandra Laffey)

In fact, there’s quite a few things adults could learn about the museum experience from kids. Heather notes that research shows our creativity starts to drop off around the age of eight, and as this is a much sought-after attribute in our tech-savvy world, perhaps we should be more childlike in our art appreciation.

“I’ve had some of the most conceptual and really deep responses [to art] from children, because they have a confidence and an openness to seeing the world – they often see things in artwork that adults don’t see.

“If we provide a stimulating, fun engagement for children to lead their parents through, the adults are given permission to play and look at things in new ways.”

So there’s no need to strike the Tate Modern or the Louvre off your wish list if you’re travelling with tots or tweens, Heather simply suggests taking a different approach when visiting art galleries with kids.

“I think anything you can do to encourage your child to be part of the planning of the visit really makes it incredibly effective. There's all sorts of tips and tricks for making the visit really very exciting but your engagement changes, so we try and create activities that can blend and move across different needs of children as they're developing and their interests are developing.”

 Creating art. (Image: Cassandra Laffey)

Top tips for visiting galleries and museums with kids:

  1. Warm up

Involve your children when planning your visit to the gallery. Look up the exhibition online and find a few artworks that will be on display when you visit. Prep your kids about not touching artworks and using an ‘indoor voice’ in the gallery.

  1. Make a plan

Find out where the artworks you’d like to see are located in the building. Note where the toilets are too!

  1. Ages and stages

Make the length of your visit appropriate to the age and stage of your child’s development. A short and sweet 30-minute visit can be fun and enriching for a family visit. Break up your visit with a trip to the café or a run around the Domain if you’re at AGNSW.

  1. Follow their lead

Let your children guide you to the artworks they are interested in and ask them questions about the works they have chosen.

  1. Engage

Have a sketchbook and pencil to encourage your kids to capture what they see in the artworks. Drawing is one of the best ways to help us learn to look. Take advantage of any programs that allow kids to create and engage with the exhibitions you are visiting.

  1. Make a stop at the shop

Kids love taking a memento of their visit home. Check out the gallery shop for a range of art-related children’s products or postcards to inspire a love of learning.

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Cassandra Laffey

Consumed with unrequited wanderlust, I get my fix in 24/7 cities and hippie retreats. I'm still looking for the ultimate combo of secluded beach and major metropolis, and my happy place is a 5-star hotel room all to myself - sigh.