Up in the gallery just a moment ago I overheard a teacher instructing his group of first graders: “Remember to use your ‘library voices’ in the museum.” I smiled and thought, “Good luck with that,” and then took a moment to reflect on how much has changed for museums in the last decade or so and how much my own approach has changed when it comes to developing exhibitions for the public—the whole public, kids and all.
Museums used to be sanctuaries of art and artifact where you would expect typical visitor behavior to include thoughtful reflection and quiet awe. Here the height of the art from the floor and the level of scholarship exhibited in the text might both be well above the heads of most children. The, shall we say, exuberance of children used to be wholly inconsistent with the notion of providing profound encounters with art, not to mention the “do not touch” policy necessary in most art installations. Increasingly, though, museums are adapting to the needs of children and the special ways they learn and view the world, and they are offering kids opportunities to experience art, history, and culture in ways that are meaningful to them. As it happens, I work for such an institution.
In my role as a curator, I still adhere to the notion that quiet contemplation is a form of “visitor engagement,” but as a mom, I am grateful for museums that not only tolerate my toddler Liam’s high energy and propensity for distraction, but actually respect his ability to perceive, appreciate, and learn from art. It is a challenge to develop content for a target audience who may be just starting to develop their language skills, who will last maybe thirty minutes in a gallery, and who might very well have other media competing for their attention while they’re in the museum space. These are challenges that I faced most recently while organizing the Skirball’s presentation of The Snowy Day and the Art of Ezra Jack Keats. For this project, I found inspiration in my three-year-old mini-muse, Liam, and in the beautiful art and stories featured in the exhibition itself.
Children live in a highly visual world. Liam’s eyes perceive so much more than mine do—he can easily point to the tiniest speck of an airplane in the sky long before I am remotely aware of its existence.
And he is innately curious about what he sees. Keats understood the sensibilities of young children and therefore illustrated his children’s books with multilayered collage combining paint, paper, fabric, photograph, and myriad other raw materials—a technique he used only once he started making art for children’s books. Taking this into consideration, we steered clear of a more traditional “white wall” art installation and instead designed the exhibition to be full of brilliant color, texture, and pattern. Of course, accessibility is an issue too. We hung much of the art low on the walls so that kiddos could actually see it.
Although Keats’s books were richly illustrated, the stories themselves were elegantly uncomplicated. Keats preferred to focus on feeling rather than plot. He captured the happiness, frustration, courage, and fears that children everywhere can relate to and thus provided timeless and universal stories regardless of their settings (historically, culturally, and geographically speaking).
My own observations of my son’s ability to empathize with others have surprised me. Liam knows when a classmate is upset and is genuinely concerned. When we read together he asks, “Why is the Man with the Yellow Hat mad at George?” understanding clearly the emotion but perhaps not the reason for it in the context of the story. In the exhibition, we have provided “family labels” that are brief and that often address the mood of a picture. We’ve also developed unique opportunities for visitors to get into character (literally!) and thus, we hope, to understand that character a little bit better.
Every day I am witness to the amazing evolution of my son’s character—I see more and more the person he will grow to be. As much as I am responsible for helping to shape his worldview, he also absorbs and learns from literally everything he sees, from every encounter. Books are powerful because they transmit values. They offer experiences outside of a child’s physical realm and introduce them to the diversity of the world around them. I sent Liam off to school today in his Superman t-shirt complete with flowing cape. It’s one of many reminders of who he’d like to be—a hero. Keats believed strongly that all children, regardless of race or background, should see themselves as heroes in picture books. That’s why he published The Snowy Day, which captures all of the “force, fury, and power of a revolution within the quiet beauty of his art,” as fellow author and illustrator Floyd Cooper once said. That’s why I read it to my son. And that’s why we’re presenting it to you.