Mini-Muse

The color of Peter’s bright red-orange snowsuit is what stands out in this illustration from the groundbreaking book The Snowy Day (1962). This and dozens of other original artworks by Keats can be seen in the exhibition The Snowy Day and the Art of Ezra Jack Keats, now on view at the Skirball. Ezra Jack Keats, “After breakfast he put on his snowsuit and ran outside.” Final illustration for The Snowy Day, 1962. Collage and paint on board. Ezra Jack Keats Papers, de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection, McCain Library and Archives, The University of Southern Mississippi. Copyright Ezra Jack Keats Foundation.

The color of Peter’s bright red-orange snowsuit is what stands out in this illustration from the groundbreaking book The Snowy Day (1962). This and dozens of other original artworks by Keats can be seen in the exhibition The Snowy Day and the Art of Ezra Jack Keats, now on view at the Skirball. Ezra Jack Keats, “After breakfast he put on his snowsuit and ran outside.” Final illustration for The Snowy Day, 1962. Collage and paint on board. Ezra Jack Keats Papers, de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection, McCain Library and Archives, The University of Southern Mississippi. Copyright Ezra Jack Keats Foundation.

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.

Above left: Artwork from The Snowy Day (1962) is hung at both a child’s and parent’s eye-level on walls painted with iridescent green, pink, purple, blue, and yellow snowflakes. Visitors can also make tracks in the special “snow” feature seen here in the foreground. Above right: The second gallery of the exhibition is a haven of participatory activities, such as story writing and collage making.

Above left: Artwork from The Snowy Day (1962) is hung at both a child’s and parent’s eye-level on walls painted with iridescent green, pink, purple, blue, and yellow snowflakes. Visitors can also make tracks in the special “snow” feature seen here in the foreground. Above right: The second gallery of the exhibition is a haven of participatory activities, such as story writing and collage making.

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.

In Goggles! (1969), Peter, his dog Willie, and his friend Archie outwit a gang of bullies in order to keep the discarded motorcycle goggles they have found. Here Archie triumphantly tries on the goggles exclaiming, “Things look real fine now.” Ezra Jack Keats, “Archie laughed and said, ‘We sure fooled ’em, didn’t we?’“ Final illustration for Goggles!, 1969. Paint and collage on board.  Ezra Jack Keats Papers, de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection, McCain Library and Archives, The University of Southern Mississippi.  Copyright Ezra Jack Keats Foundation.

In Goggles! (1969), Peter, his dog Willie, and his friend Archie outwit a gang of bullies in order to keep the discarded motorcycle goggles they have found. Here Archie triumphantly tries on the goggles exclaiming, “Things look real fine now.” Ezra Jack Keats, “Archie laughed and said, ‘We sure fooled ’em, didn’t we?’“ Final illustration for Goggles!, 1969. Paint and collage on board. Ezra Jack Keats Papers, de Grummond Children’s Literature Collection, McCain Library and Archives, The University of Southern Mississippi. Copyright Ezra Jack Keats Foundation.

 

Liam modeling a pair of yellow “goggles” while visiting momma at work. These goggles are available for visitors to try on in the exhibition to encourage closer looking and to help see things from the character’s perspective.

Liam modeling a pair of yellow “goggles” while visiting momma at work. These goggles are available for visitors to try on in the exhibition to encourage closer looking and to help see things from the character’s perspective.

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. Continue reading

Share

Schoolhouse Rock Turns the Big 4-0

This Schoolhouse Rock film “Preamble” makes viewing the Constitution in Creating the United States
that much more meaningful and fun.

The suite of exhibitions and programs we’re currently presenting at the Skirball under the thematic umbrella Democracy Matters has gotten me thinking about the way I learned some of the fundamentals of American history and government as a kid in the 1970s.

Growing up in San Diego, I was light years away from Washington D.C. and all those historic sites of colonial wars and document signings—and from the key museums and libraries that house the most noteworthy foundational documents. Instead I learned the basics of American history primarily from a series of short animated music videos that aired as interstitial programs on ABC: Schoolhouse Rock (which turns forty today according to the Washington Post and NPR)!

Come now, all you forty-somethings out there. Didn’t many of you, too, learn the Preamble to the Constitution from a Schoolhouse Rock film with an unbelievably catchy tune sung by Lynn Ahrens… Continue reading

Share

Conversations and Connections: A Teenager in his Native Habitat and at the Skirball

My son Arlen, standing at the entrance of the Women Hold Up Half the Sky exhibition, which he called “actually pretty cool.”

My son Arlen, standing at the entrance of the Women Hold Up Half the Sky exhibition, which he called “actually pretty cool.”

Living with my fifteen-year-old son, Arlen, is like living with a wild animal. A non-verbalizing, hedonistically hibernating, ragingly ravenous animal. The palate craves only that which is smothered in cheese. The wild mop of hair has been known to cause strangers on the street to nag (or, to my dismay, compliment and rave). The clothing is monochromatic. The vocabulary is monosyllabic. Parenting a teen is like living with a beast whose sole mission in life seems to be to eat more groceries than I can afford and to thwart my efforts at planning quality family time.

According to a great article I recently read in National Geographic, my son’s qualities could probably be attributed to the intense brain reorganization that kids his age experience. Nonetheless, I desire more connection with him, and I’m willing to try almost anything. Since many of my conversations with Arlen involve overwrought pop psychology on my part, and a series of grunts and somewhat base gestures on his, it has come as a huge relief to find things to do at the Skirball that inspire genuine communication. The Skirball is well known for our programs for young families (I am itching to sleep overnight inside Noah’s Ark at the Skirball), dynamic adult education, and thought-provoking and beautiful exhibitions. But did you know that there is a mélange of meaningful moments to be had at the Skirball with that favorite teen animal/angel in your life? I am so happy to trumpet to you all that there is. THERE IS!

I spent my first six months working here as a timid observer, wondering if my son would like our offerings—or if he could be coerced into showering for any of them. Then, I signed up for the Skirball’s Teen Parenting Seminar, hoping it would give me techniques to foster open communication. The seminar was full of eager parents and brave new ideas—and the most simple yet profound of these zapped my brain like a laser: do new things with your teenager.

So, we tried doing a few things. We went to the Huntington Gardens, but my own mom and I enjoyed their gorgeous rose gardens a teensy bit more than my son—although he did get in some quality texting time. We have now been to Disneyland more times than

probably anyone you know, and frankly we are both bored of the “happiest place on earth” (how much is there actually to say about Space Mountain?).

This conversation may have been slightly altered to serve my parental bias. Mental note: Discuss the concept of artistic license with son.

This conversation may have been slightly altered to serve my parental bias. Mental note: Discuss the concept of artistic license with son.

It took me a while to realize that some of the Skirball’s offerings might suit my son very well indeed. So, I signed us up for a Skirball Member preview of a documentary film called Bully that has been at the center of much media attention. It was a stealth invitation, meaning that I just texted him that I had scheduled an activity. I didn’t give him any details. This turned out to be a brilliant plan on my part: I hadn’t given him any information, so there was nearly nothing to which he could object.

After watching Bully together, something incredible happened: we really talked afterwards. We talked and talked for over an hour about the film, as well as my son’s own experiences with bullying. For the first time in a long time, we had an organic, genuine conversation. The experience was transformative, and I mean that in the truest sense of the word. We were transformed from a mother and son who barely recounted the banal happenings of our day to each other… into two people who felt substantially closer to one another. And the best part is that we now have a way to keep that closeness going. Continue reading

Share

A Father/Daughter “Wow Moment”:
Making a Wish for Women and Girls Worldwide

Rosie, admiring Wish Canopy. How proud I was to see her wish that women and girls “become whatever they want to be.”

The first thing visible when you walk into Women Hold Up Half the Sky is the expansive “sky” that hovers above the gallery. My daughter, Rosie, the consummate twelve-year old, was immediately taken by it, which of course made me happy. As a museum professional, I lust for “wow moments” in museums, and so I was pleased that she had one right away. “This is amazing,” she said, peering over the railing of the mezzanine. “I can’t get over it.”

We made our way into the first section of the exhibition, which focuses on maternal health, and what drew her in most were the paintings and textiles made by families involved with the White Ribbon Alliance for Safe Motherhood. Each one tells the story of a woman who perished in childbirth as a result of violence, cultural practice, or poor health care. The images, to say the least, outraged Rosie. Like most kids, she is obsessed with things being fair, and these stories seemed to illustrate just how unfair it is that there are still women who do not survive childbirth. “Horrible. Women should have all the help they need and not have to suffer,” she said with indignation. You said it, sister, I thought to myself. Continue reading

Share