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Explore Kid-Friendly Art

Every family has that embarrassing museum story. The one where little Billy walked up to a priceless vase and licked it—or little Sally tried to pet a dog in a John Singer Sargent painting. An alarm beeped followed by the appearance of a disgruntled docent, and the kid got shuttled rapidly out of the gallery, maybe to the car, with the family leaving apologies in their wake. Great times!

Experiences like this can make a child dread going to an art museum. I remember when my son was small, after about an hour in an art museum, he complained of a stomach ache. I asked him what he thought was wrong, and he said, “I think it’s all the paintings.”

Fortunately for children in the Tidewater area, local museums and arts centers are doing their best to combat this traditional hands-off policy with new exhibits and classes that encourage children to be hands on instead! The Chrysler Museum, Peninsula Fine Arts Center, Hermitage Museum, and others are rolling out kid-friendly experiences that will make introducing your child to the arts fun and stress free. To investigate these offerings, I borrowed two children and took them on the road.

I visited the new Wonder Studio at the Chrysler Museum of Art with Owen, 11, and Janey, 8, and we had a blast. This new permanent gallery is designed specifically for children with three exciting installations to help them get into art.

The Wonder Studio is furnished with comfortable seating for adults and has one entrance/exit, so children can be “free range” and their chaperones can relax. The Chrysler’s education department conducted focus groups and engaged consultants to design a uniquely accessible gallery specifically for families, and they came up with these three offerings.

• The Colorspace is a three-dimensional blank canvas for digital art, where body-capture cameras project bright colors and lights based on the movements of the participants. You can run, dance, wave your arms, or just sway, and experiment with different colors and shapes. The kids loved playing in this space, and Janey said, “I feel like deep down I’ve always wanted to make art with my whole body!”

• Like a tunnel through a shark-filled aquarium tank, the Artquarium allows children to get up close and personal with artwork from the museum’s collection. Because the pieces are protected by glass, kids can examine the finest details without being told to step back. Adults will also find it fascinating to look at the backs of the paintings and view these objects in 3D rather than on a gallery wall. A brochure gives context for the works on display, which will rotate regularly to provide a constantly changing experience. This was Owen’s favorite part of the Wonder Studio, and the kids enjoyed using the magnifying glasses and other tools to get close to these artifacts.

• In the Studio kids can digitally draw on and manipulate images from the museum’s collection on touch screens at three stations, learning about shapes and forms up close. The digital images rotate every two minutes, and kids’ custom art pieces are projected on huge screens in the walls. This playful experience is a conversation starter, as kids touch and try different colors and shapes and learn about artistic forms in a nonverbal way. Neither of my borrowed kids needed any instructions to fully experience this exhibit, as the controls are all intuitive and the learning objectives line up with what they naturally wanted to do.

Anne Corso, director of education at the Chrysler, told us that the Wonder Studio is meant to be a place in the museum where kids and families can feel safe to explore. According to Owen, “The museum has a lot of art that children can look at but not touch. Art is nice, but children are naturally crazy, so it’s good that there is a place for children to be crazy.” Indeed, a trip to the Wonder Studio, to get the wiggles out, would be a great precursor to a short trip through the rest of the museum.

Museum educator Maegan Douglas pointed out that the kid-friendly vibe has been extended into other spaces in the museum. For example, the current photography exhibit by Vik Muniz, on display through October 14, has colorful spots on the floor where children can stand and read plaques meant specifically for them, each suggesting child-friendly activities and interactions.

In Newport News, the Peninsula Fine Arts Center is hosting an exhibition called “French Connections,” through the end of September. The show features Marc Chagall, a modernist artist who hailed from Russia, France, and even the U.S. during World War II, when he fled Paris to escape the Nazi threat. You might be familiar with his Green Violinist or his incredible stained-glass windows.

Chagall is often whimsical, inspired by animals and circus scenes, which makes his work perfect for children to access. “Chagall for Children” is an incredible exhibit where fifteen artworks are translated into activity stations. Children can perform tasks, create art, listen to audio, and even push buttons to experience the sounds of musical instruments and the smells of still life compositions!

For example, one station allows children to compose a stained-glass window of their own, using colored tiles on a light box, in sort of a decomposed version of one of Chagall’s actual windows. Another station invites them to engage in weaving, like Chagall’s tapestry. Owen and Janey loved the station where blue log bricks were on hand to create a three-dimensional version of the cottage in The Blue House, a cubist work from 1917.

Janelle Burchfield, who directs the center’s community engagement, noted that while Chagall for Children is the first exhibit in PFAC’s large gallery space to be specifically for kids,  PFAC’s Hands On for Kids Gallery is a permanent area open all year for kids to experiment, play, and take joy in art. It has an awesome Lego wall, a huge chalkboard space, a spacious area for creating artwork and crafts with easy materials available, and a wonderful spirit of fun and creativity. Janey loved sitting down to make a craft with glue and pom poms, and Owen dug right in at the building station. You can even have a birthday party or group event there. If you have a preschooler, the Art Start class is included with your admission ticket, and admission is free for kids five and under.

Owen and Janey truly enjoyed the time we spent at Peninsula Fine Arts Center and felt that the museum was meant for them, welcomed them, and needed them there, even though they are kids!

If you’re not from around here, you might think that “the hermitage” is some sort of remote cottage where a cranky old man throws watermelon rinds at visitors, or teaches them timeless truths, or herds goats. No! At one time, the Hermitage Museum and Gardens was the private residence of the Sloane family, art collectors who helped found the Chrysler Museum. What started out as a five-room summer house bloomed to 48 rooms under the constant attention of artisans and craftsmen, whose entire job it was to make the house bigger and more awesome.

This museum is taking “hands on” to a whole new level with their latest exhibition, 3D Printing at the Smithsonian, which includes ten objects from the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery, 3D printed in exact replicas that you can pick up and touch! The star of the show will be a five-foot replica of the Cosmic Buddha, but many smaller items are being printed from other area museums as well. Slover Library’s Maker Studio will partner with The Hermitage for 3D printing labs every Saturday at noon, where kids can watch and learn about the process and get a better understanding of why these replicas are so special.

Exhibit curator Jennifer Lucy launched the idea after a residency at the Smithsonian. She is looking forward to visitors being able to get their hands on these pieces. “There’s one little sculpture of Hotei, a Chinese deity meant to bring good fortune,” she explained. “To be able to hold him just as the original owner would have held him really helps you to connect with the original purpose.” There will be a ticketed Opening Party on Friday, September 14, but if you miss the opening, you can still can visit the exhibit through December 16.

“Children will love exploring the exhibit,” Jennifer continued. “Several of the 3D printed objects are reminiscent of toys they may play with and is a great way to introduce them to ancient art.” The museum will be offering a school tour during the run of the exhibit for all ages that incorporates additional interactive activities, such as building a 3D puzzle and doing rubbings. These two activities will also be in the downstairs activity room for all children visitors.

While kids will probably still be told to shush and settle in quiet galleries containing priceless works of art, it’s great that museums in the Tidewater area are putting their resources into giving our children a place to be kids and experience art at the same time. Check out any of our region’s art museums and art centers for family-friendly fun, and start your child on a creative path that will shape his or her future.

Lydia Netzer is the author of Shine Shine Shine, a New York Times Notable Book and a finalist for the LA Times Book Prize. She lives in Norfolk with her husband and two children. Find out more at

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