I recently read an article on visiting art galleries, which said “Don’t bring children”. The writer’s argument was that there are lots of perfectly good children’s museums where they can charge around and press buttons, so why bring them to an art gallery where they will be bored and behave badly. Well, I disagree and I like a challenge, so here are my 7 tips for taking children to art galleries.
1. Prepare them in advance
Find out what works of art are in the gallery and try and find stories related to these paintings or sculptures to fire their imagination before they go. When we visited the National Gallery in London last December, we walked through the galleries spotting as many baby Jesus’ as we could. They were all doing nativity plays at school and we had lots of “look, there’s a king like me”. They were engaged and enthusiastic, and the adults got a chance to look at a few paintings too.
Some galleries even publish their own children’s books, like the excellent ones written by James Mayhew and produced by the National Gallery (above). Each book focuses on a different area of the gallery’s collection, such as Impressionists or British painters, and tells a story about a little girl called Katie, who steps into the paintings and has adventures with the characters in them. They are lovely stories in their own right, and we often read them. The first time we took the children to the National Gallery, they spotted a couple of the paintings from their book and were really excited.
2. Don’t let them touch anything
It is obviously really important not to touch any of the artworks “to see what happens”, or ping the little ankle-height elastic barriers, however enticing they are to a two year old. It is worth pointing this out to children when you arrive, as incurring the wrath of a museum guard will make for a very stressful visit. This is from someone who has had to rapidly scarper when a small child put their foot under barrier, “to see what happens” and found that the alarms do actually go off.
3. Let off steam safely
After all that good behaviour and not touching, they are going to need to let off steam. Again, do your research and work out in advance where they will be able to do this without crashing into priceless artworks. The turbine hall in Tate Modern makes a great rainy-day playground, and the Victoria & Albert Museum has a lovely central courtyard garden (right) where they are allowed to have a paddle. Just don’t let them poo on the lawn like one of my children did recently. It upsets the other visitors.
4. Don’t try and see too much
Spending hours in an art gallery can be overwhelming for an adult, and even more so for a small child. Aim to see just a few pictures and everyone will be happier. You could create a gallery treasure hunt, either using a leaflet produced by the gallery, or go to the shop first and let them choose a few postcards they like. You then have to hunt around the gallery to find your pictures. It keeps them busy and focussed and means that you are looking for a small number of pictures you have chosen, instead of every picture in the room.
4. Make the most of the facilities
Most museums these days have great cafes, loos, cloakrooms for buggies and other facilites for children. Many art galleries welcome small children with a year-round programme of activities. The National Portrait Gallery has a weekly storytelling session, based around a new portrait each week and Tate Britain has an ‘Art Trolley’ every Sunday, when children are allowed their pick of the fantastic materials to create a picture inspired by one of the gallery’s masterpieces.
Speaking of facilites, all galleries these days have large, prominently placed shops, some of which you have to walk through to get to the exit. If you don’t want to spend money in these, work out your exit strategy in advance.
6. Guided tours
Some galleries have guided tours specifically aimed at children. We had a great time recently being entertained by the fabulously expressive Roberto at the Dulwich Picture Gallery. A group of three and four year olds (and their parents) were kept entranced with tales of kings, princes and boys drinking goats milk, directly from the goat. As well as tours led by humans, some galleries also have audio tours specifically for children, which tell the stories behind the pictures.
7. Installation art
Our children love installation art. I know this sounds unlikely, but it’s true. I think it’s because they take it at face value instead of trying to work out it’s meaning. It was with some trepidation that we paid good money to visit the Anthony Gormley exhibition at the Haywood Gallery a couple of years ago (above), wondering whether it would be money wasted. But they absolutely loved it and we had to drag them away for lunch. We’ve since visited a number of modern art exhibitions, all of which they’ve enjoyed.
I am firmly of the opinion that it is possible to visit an art gallery with small children, without them trashing the place. If you are lucky, you might even get to see some art.