Art History Mom’s Bad Day at the Museum

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My husband and I recently took our three children to the High Museum of Art, Atlanta. This post is a summary of our experience that day, and what I learned from it. If you’ve had any interesting experiences with children at the museum, good or bad, please do share!

We just returned from the High Museum of Art. I’m absolutely exhausted. The painting below pretty much sums up my mood. Like the protagonist in Degas’s canvas, I could use a good shot of Absinthe right about now.

The Absinthe Drinker, Edgar Degas, 1876, Musée d'Orsay, Paris.

The Absinthe Drinker, Edgar Degas, 1876, Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

I was so excited about the outing since it would be our first family visit to the museum. Christian and I met on a blind date at the High over ten years ago. The first time we met face to face was under the Rodin sculpture that welcomes visitors to the High. I had fantasized about gathering the children under the Rodin and snapping a few cheerful photos. As Art History Mom, I’ve written Seven Tips for a Successful Trip to the Art Museum with Kids so my expectations were high, and perhaps overconfident. It’s easy to go from Hero to Zero.

Our main mistake was lumping two big events together in one outing: Church and the museum. These are two places where people need to sit quietly, use their inside voices, and keep their hands to themselves. Oh, and they can’t run around like little six year old boys do.

After Church, Anders was hungry. If you’re familiar with Dante, you know that bringing small children to a museum on an empty stomach is included among the nine rings of hell; one of the lower rings if I recall. Needless to say, we suffered through lots of extreme whining.

Once the kids’ tummies were filled  at the High’s café, we were ready to see some art. Well, I was ready to see some art. Little Sophie was ready to touch some art. First on the agenda: African Masks and Masquerade. The thing about African masks is that they are so…well, touchable. What four year old fingers can resist the textured wood, spongey animal hair, and shiny shells that decorate those fascinating artifacts? Certainly not Sophia Nelson’s. After several kind requests from the guard to NOT TOUCH THE ARTWORK, we were outta there.

Suku Artist, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kakuungu Mask, late 19th century - early 20th century, wood, fiber, and pigments, 24 x 15 ¾ inches. Courtesy Royal Museum for Central Africa, Tervuren, Belgium, gift of R.F.O. Butaye, collected in 1932.

Suku Artist, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kakuungu Mask, late 19th century – early 20th century, wood, fiber, and pigments, 24 x 15 ¾ inches. Courtesy Royal Museum for Central Africa, Tervuren, Belgium, gift of R.F.O. Butaye, collected in 1932.

The Go West! exhibition was next. More like the WILD West when we entered. Our seven year old daughter is extremely fond of horses and there are lots of them featured in this show. Upon seeing one she would point and shout “HOOORRRSSSEE!” My husband said “shhh” so many times his lips began to hurt. So long Albert Beirstadt. I’ll have to admire your stunning landscapes via Wikipaintings.

The grand finale was when our son had a meltdown as we were leaving. Unbeknownst to Daddy, I had promised Anders a treat at the end of our visit. When Anders asked for some candy, he was told by his father that we would be having dessert at home. Anders’s reaction to this startlingly bad news brings Munch’s The Scream to mind.

I will say that Renzo Piano‘s wing of the High has outstanding acoustics.

The Scream, Edvard Munch, 1893, National Gallery, Oslo

The Scream, Edvard Munch, 1893, National Gallery, Oslo

So, what did I learn from this little trip to the museum?

Be gentle on your children. And yourself.

One of the reasons I married my husband is that he makes me laugh. I can be a very serious person in much need comic relief and he never fails to provide. Upon returning from the museum, we had a good laugh about the excursion and talked about what we’ll do differently next time.

I was frustrated with our kids because they hadn’t acted according to my expectations, but in reality, my expectations were unrealistic. Our kids simply can’t stay still and quiet at church and the museum in the same day. Maybe other kids can do it, but ours can’t. And that’s okay. Next time we’ll make our trip to the museum the only excursion of the day.

Persistence will pay off.

You may know of Picasso’s painting, Guernica, in which he portrays the horrors of the Spanish Civil War. Sometimes parenthood can seem like a battle, too.

Guernica, Pablo Picasso, 1937, Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid, Spain

Guernica, Pablo Picasso, 1937, Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid, Spain

Children will often resist that which is good for them: vegetables, homework, chores, etc. They would most likely rather go to the movies than the art museum. I believe that exposing them to great art and music is important, and that if I persist in my efforts our children will one day thank us. Or maybe they won’t thank us. But just maybe, sometime in the future, they’ll go to Paris. And when they arrive in that beautiful city they’ll wait in line in the summer heat for over an hour to get into the Louvre, because they simply can’t miss seeing the Mona Lisa, the Venus de Milo and Liberty Leading the People.

And when I receive my French postcard of the Mona Lisa in the mail, I am going to smile and think: it was all worth it.

Oh, and High Museum of Art, look out, because we’re renewing our membership next month.

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  1. Thank you for being real! My boys would have a tough time with church and the museum in the same day, too. :)

    • Kristen Nelson says:

      Yes, boys. After church and the museum we spent the rest of the day at the park so Anders could get some energy out!

  2. I Love this post! You are funny and I love your perspective – it seems like we’ve both had some similar parenting experiences in life! Be blessed! Colleen

    • Kristen Nelson says:

      Thanks Colleen! Maybe after nine years of marriage my husband’s wit is rubbing off on me a little.

  3. I think this is a really nice website, full of great ideas, and a realistic view of handling kids at museums.
    Grandma in Syracuse

  4. Kristen, l love that you are an open book. What a wonderful way to end your story with hope that it will pay off! And it will………

  5. YahuahsHomeMaker says:

    I enjoy your posts very much and this post was awesome. Sometimes I set unrealistic expectations for the children and then I feel like a failure. I want to take our kids the same museum but the youngest 3 are under 5 and I know they cannot be expected to be quiet. Maybe we can just plan to go with the older two for now.

    I am learning more about art (through your posts)and it will be a bigger focus in our home education as we have one child who really enjoys it, so thank you!

    • Kristen Nelson says:

      I think it’s fine to take the older two only for now. Another idea would be to attend the High’s Toddler Thursdays with the younger children (the older ones might like it as well!).

      My four year old daughter is very vocal and has a lot of energy. The next time I take her it will be a special “mommy and me” date because I realized during our last visit she’s needs one on one supervision at the museum, for now at least.

      Good luck in your efforts!

  6. Kristen,
    I have been reading your blog for several weeks and find it a perfect resource for me, both as a mom and as an art educator.
    I have a background in fine art and art history, teach art lessons to children aged 4-18, and am raising 3 children (6 yrs. and younger). Your ideas are so helpful and it’s wonderful to have found a place where like-minded parents and teachers can find a source of inspiration for their kids AND themselves.
    Thanks for doing this!

    • Kristen Nelson says:

      It sounds like we have a lot in common, Megan. I would love to hear about how you incorporate any of my lessons into the classroom environment. I hope your children enjoy the lessons, too.

  7. Thanks for the laugh – AND the dose of reality on setting expectations! Your post has given me the strength to try a museum trip another day with my 2 boys (age 3 and 7). (Something I didn’t think if say for 10 years after our last trip! HA!).
    Side note: The Minneapolis Institute of Art did something really cool to engage kids the last time we were there. They created a treasure map that the kids could use to hunt all over the museum for specific things. Like “2nd floor, room whatever, lady with a red dress”. It allowed us parents to see many areas (quickly, but that brings me back to expectations! No lingering to ponder long with kids!), and kept the kids engaged and interested in actually looking at the art. They had to scan many pieces in order to find what they were looking for, so I can’t help but hope the memories of those pieces will linger in their subconscious minds and inspire an interesting thought some day!). Maybe other places do this and it’s an old trick, but I just had to share! So cool! Thanks again!

    • Kristen Nelson says:

      Tracey, I think the treasure hunt idea is a good one. Thanks for sharing. A parent can always make their own treasure hunt by doing a little footwork at the museum’s website prior to the visit.

      Good luck bringing your boys!

  8. Thanks for sharing with honestly! It made me laugh! :)

  9. Cathy Zeliff says:

    Funny article, Kristen! Thanks for giving us easy lessons to learn — from your experience. The next time we make a museum outing I will consider the timing and surrounding events very carefully. Keep up the great work!

  10. I am really excited I found your blog! I currently teach a 3-4 year old preschool class & am always looking for different ideas. I took a few art history classes in college & fell in love with art! I can’t draw, paint, or sculpt to save my life, but I love observing & seeing it & want to show my students art is more than crayons & glue (not that there’s anything wrong with that ;) ).

    • Kristen Nelson says:

      I’m glad you found me too, Ashely! I have a preschooler myself and plan on gearing one lesson per month to that age group.

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