What can we learn about art by listening to kids? Museum educator Liz Yohlin Baill shares her experiences developing gallery materials for our youngest visitors.
Wiggly children plus priceless works of art might sound like a minefield—a thought I’ve confronted when visiting the museum with my own delightful yet destructive kids. But over the course of my fifteen years as a museum educator, I’ve come to firmly believe that kids are exemplary museumgoers and the best possible partners for looking at art.
“Do people pee in that potty, Mommy?” asks my 4-year-old upon taking one look at Marcel Duchamp’s famed readymade Fountain (shown above). Not quite as sophisticated as young visitor Annyla’s definition of art (“Art is just your feelings on paper,” posted in our galleries) but a legitimate question, especially when it comes to Duchamp, who I imagine would be delighted by the suggestion.
Through an adult lens, the things kids say—about art or anything—are often hilarious in their candor and adorable in their innocence. But they are also truthful, insightful, curious, and reflective of their world. Children often give voice to the questions grown-ups have but are unlikely to articulate. Kids model an openness when responding to art, with an immediacy unencumbered by art-world constructs (“How much is this worth?” my husband always asks) or knowledge of art history’s esoteric canon.
The interpretations of our youngest visitors are central to our Art Kids gallery strategy, launching this holiday season with, among other things, over forty labels featuring kids’ responses to art. The project expands on past experiments creating resources “For kids, by kids.” It began in 2017 with an audio recording of fifth graders from Philadelphia’s Masterman School in conversation with wildlife photographer Michael Nichols, whose works were being presented in the exhibition Wild.
“Have you ever been hurt by an animal?”
“Do you get scared?”
“It looks like this gorilla took a selfie.”
“Why did you show a picture that’s blurry?”
The following year, we tested kids’ quotes on labels in Modern Times: American Art 1910–1950. In reflecting on the exhibition’s title, fifth grader Jakob hit on a main theme of the show: “Heck, everyone who ever lived has felt modern. In the world of tomorrow, they will think of us as yesterday.” Rayden was all of us when he commented, “I don’t know what it is but I’m bad at solving Cubism.” Giana asked if Milton Avery left his daughter’s face blank in this portrait because he just couldn’t draw faces. Pelham decided, “I think he did that to show that she does not need a pretty face to be amazing.” And of this work by Jacob Lawrence, Emi remarked,“I don’t understand what it’s supposed to represent but I feel like it’s something powerful.”
Our suspicions that kids can help us all learn to look were affirmed in visitor surveys about the labels. “If you don’t know what’s going on in a piece, hearing the kids’ confessions makes you less embarrassed,” said one adult. “We found ourselves looking at a painting in a completely different way and actually stopping to discuss it,” commented another.
Looking at art with children can also offer a glimpse into the realities of their lives. While in the thick of the pandemic, we asked kids to describe an imaginary experience of jumping into Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s At the Moulin Rouge: The Dance. Katja offered a disclaimer to her response: “This is what I would say before the coronavirus happened. I would not go to this party otherwise.” A conversation about Édouard Vuillard’s depiction of a grandmother and baby yielded reflections on being separated from loved ones. One child shared that the work reminded him of his grandmother who began coming over for dinner since his grandfather’s death.
For me, the best part about looking at art with kids is learning something new about how they see the world. “What do you see that makes you say that?” is a common refrain among museum educators, seeking to understand “the why” behind the observation. It makes space for the life experience, no matter how many years that might be, that a viewer brings to a work of art. I hope to see a range of community voices interpreting art in the future and welcome any child to contribute their perspective. No response is too silly, minor, or outlandish. Remember, my bar is set at “do people pee in that?”
Liz Yohlin Baill is a mom of two and author of the picture books Armor & Animals and What Can Colors Do?, which draw on the museum’s collection and encourage young readers and their grown-ups to talk about what they see. She has developed award-winning, kid-friendly content at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, and the Chicago History Museum.