Gauguin with the Kids: Tips from Seattle Art Museum Educators

reclining_tahitian_women_mediumBy Elisa Murray

Dazzling. Innovative. A “dual triumph of art and culture.” Those are just a few of the adjectives being thrown around to describe the new exhibition at Seattle Art Museum, Gauguin & Polynesia: An Elusive Paradise, which opened February 9 and runs through April 29. Years in the making, the exhibition displays close to 60 pieces from the last 17 years of the famed French painter’s life, alongside a collection of Polynesian art that inspired and influenced him. Seattle is the only U.S. stop for the exhibition.

Plus, Gauguin equals color. It’s gray Seattle winter. Of course you’re going to go. But should you bring the kids? If so, how to do it right? To find out, we asked Regan Pro, Manager of School and Educator Programs at Seattle Art Museum, for her tips on making a family visit to the exhibition a memorable one -- memorable in a wow-everyone-was-entertained-and-educated way, not in a my-screaming-toddler-ruined-everyone’s-Gauguin-show way.

What are some reasons to consider taking kids to an exhibit like Gauguin & Polynesia?

Bringing your child to the museum allows for opportunities to look together, build curiosity, and create a foundation for further learning and exploration. The more times kids visit the museum, the more comfortable they will feel as children and adults in museum spaces, and the more familiar they will be with interacting with art in many different spaces.

And it’s fun! Museums offer opportunities to have fun as a family and create memorable experiences together.

What are strategies for seeing this type of exhibit with kids?

- Build from their interest. Let kids select and direct which works of art they want to visit.

- Pace yourself. Avoid museum fatigue! Choose just a few works to look at and don’t attempt to see or do too much.

- Ask questions. Prompt kids to look closely by asking them questions. What interests you about this work of art? What do you think is going on here? What questions do you have? What does it remind you of?

- Be aware of policies. Help remind young visitors not to touch works of art and help them understand why this is important (touching can damage works of art, and we want to preserve them for kids in the future to see and enjoy). Asking them to hold your hand or keep their hands in their pockets can help fight the impulse to touch.

- Sit down. Most museums, SAM included, allow kids to sit on the floor or benches in front of works of art. This is a much easier way to promote a longer look (and might give you a new perspective!).

- Respond creatively. Many museums allow sketchpads and pencils in the galleries and/or have studio spaces in the building for visitors such as SAM’s Chase Open Studio (on Level 2).

- Attend a family program. SAM’s family events provide interactive activities, performances and opportunities for kids to engage with the museum at their level. Many programs are free!

What are specific strategies for families with younger kids?

SAM toddler play area
Test-driving SAM's toddler play area

Take the time to look and then create using the free creative spaces available at the museum. Make art in the Chase Open Studio (on the second floor), read and play in the Knudsen Family Room (in the South Building on the third floor), or bring your toddlers to the SAMVA terrace (the area adjacent to the First Avenue and University St. entrance) to sketch, build and play. Take a break between viewing pieces of art.

[Editor’s note: Based on my experience of taking my two-year-old to the exhibit, I’d recommend not taking very young children to Gauguin, at least on crowded weekends. However, you could easily do a parent hand-off – keeping the LO busy in one of the family areas or staring at the cars hanging from the ceiling -- while each of you does a tour. And other parts of the museum are fair game, possibly even less crowded than usual because most folks are drawn to the special exhibit.]

How about for older kids, who might be more interested in learning about the art?

Encourage them to sketch and take notes during the exhibition regarding the work they are most curious about. Take a public docent tour of the exhibition to learn more about the history and the artists represented. Build on curiosity back at home by encouraging follow-up research such as borrowing videos from the library, exploring the resources online or downloading the audio guide.

There’s some nudity in the exhibit. How can parents prepare kids for what they’ll see?

First, make sure that this exhibition is an appropriate fit for your family by viewing examples of the work on display on the Gauguin & Polynesia microsite.

Nudity has been an aspect of visual art for thousands of years, often either to show the beauty of the human form or to reflect different cultural norms and standards. Use the topic as an opportunity to teach about ideals of beauty and how they change depending on time and place. Prepare to answer any questions kids might have in an honest and straightforward way. Addressing the issue directly helps move the conversation on to other topics. You can also relate nudity to age-appropriate common experiences, such as bathing, dress, etc.

For families less familiar with the museum, what are some other kid-friendly exhibits they might want to check out?

Create themed tours for your children -- ask them to look for particular colors, shapes, animals or landscapes throughout the museum. The Northwest Coast galleries feature art from our local culture. Sit and sketch a house post or a mask. Watch the videos of real working artists.

What are highlights of the family program you've lined up for the exhibit?

Community Day, on Saturday, March 10 from 10 a.m. – 3 p.m. We’ll have art making, tours, performances and lots of art! All activities are drop in, so come for one hour, or the whole day. And it's all free (though admission to the exhibit is not included).
And the first 400 people lined up at Hammering Man will be given free tickets to see Gauguin & Polynesia.

Teen Night Out, on Friday, April 13, 7-10 p.m. This free event is planned entirely by SAM’s Teen Advisory Group (TAG). Expect awesome performances, a DJ, dancing, art making, tours by teens and best of all, free admission to Gauguin & Polynesia.

For budget-conscious families, are there opportunities to visit the exhibit for less?

First, kids 12 and under are free always, even for special exhibitions. A SAM membership is also a good option for families because it allows you to come in and look at a couple pieces of art, and go home when your kids get tired.

First Thursdays are also discounted, and teens can see the exhibition for free on Teen Night Out. We also have some great resources for schools to visit for very reduced prices, so encourage your kids' teachers to visit and come along for the field trip.

Anything else that might be helpful to families planning a visit?

Check out the interactive map on the Gauguin & Polynesia website. You can follow Gauguin’s travels across Europe and the Pacific Islands, and watch videos about the art he encountered and created on these trips.

If you want to go further, there are lots of rich resources available through our Wyckoff Teacher Resource Center, located at the Seattle Asian Art Museum in Volunteer Park.

If you go:

When: Gauguin & Polynesia runs through April 29, 2012. During the exhibition, SAM has special hours: It's open on Tuesdays (10 a.m.-5 p.m.), and on Thursdays and Fridays until 9 p.m., with discounted tickets between 5 and 9 p.m.

Tickets: Tickets are $18-$23 for non-members, and free for members and children ages 12 and under. All are encouraged to buy or reserve advance tickets online for a specific viewing time. 

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