For 17 years, Jeffrey Plunkett has shown tourists his beloved New York City, and he has a particular way with bringing NYC’s legendary art museums alive for his guests. Here, he shares how children as young as Kindergartners can learn life lessons from art, and even fall in love with museums.
The very word ‘museum‘ strikes a chord of antiquity in the minds of kids – dusty relics in an endless and endlessly boring maze of rooms rendered curiously church-like in their reverent, confusing silence. ‘This will not be fun‘ is written all over their faces whenever I bring a group to The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Or, because of the playground/museums that dot the landscape these days, interactive bio-domes where children can tumble through the chambers of the heart on a sliding board like little human-sized red blood cells, their idea of ‘museum’ is a bit muddled, not helped by attractions that entirely misappropriate the word. Dear dead Madame Tussaud springs to mind. ‘The is gonna be a LOT of fun’ I see diminish in these kids’ bodies when they realize they can’t cartwheel down the entire ramp of the Guggenheim.
But art museums are fun, and I would suggest fun for students as young as five – those who have language skills and the beginnings of an attention span, that this moment in front of us can be encountered for at least a moment. Kindergarteners can do this. I’ve seen it and done it with them. And that is when they should start going as a group. Bring your own children even younger, of course, just to expose them if nothing else. But to involve them, bring them en masse, groups of twelve to fifteen, because the social structure of the presence of their peers works to focus them in what will be something like their classroom environment.
Before I go any further, full disclosure. I am neither an educator nor an art historian. But I am a New York City tour guide who has spent the last seventeen years bringing thousands of students to some of our great art museums and actively pursuing strategies that engage them where they are in their development, in the hopes that they will spend a lifetime cracking the codes of museums, and seek them out in their travels throughout the world, throughout their lives.
The biggest obstacle to unlocking the experience of a museum in young children is their lack of understanding as to how a museum functions, what its goals may be, how its mandate functions and unfolds within the space, and quite simply, the cues it employs to identify works of art. This is pretty easy to address. Have one class on what kind of art they can expect to see at the museum you plan to visit, how many works are there, when was it established, and how the works are identified, artist, lifespan, the work, the date of the work, when it was acquired, and perhaps a quick foray into the concept of provenance. The bigger challenge is that children lack the vernacular to understand art. And that is to be expected. Most adults do as well.We all are trying to do what the artists have often actively attempted to bypass, put words to an encounter they have instead hoped would hit us in our hearts rather than our heads. Our responses are supposed to be visceral rather than intellectual. So we have to work backwards from this and create a construct children can maneuver.
It is good to begin with some overarching themes. And one that is nearly entirely forgotten in my experience is that a museum in itself is a work of art. Curators are artists, placing works in proximity to one another for the way they inform their neighbors, artists in many case responding to one another directly in the evolution of a particular movement or in a cross-generational nod to that which came before and further, how the current zeitgeist is informed by the past and used as a stepping stone to the future. At The Met, Chuck Close’s matrix portraits are directly one floor beneath Seurat’s pointillism paintings. This is intentional and we are invited to make those comparisons. The exotic palettes of Gauguin in Tahiti hang across the room from the more Fauvist works of van Gogh. The abstraction of color was possible in the South Pacific sunshine as much as it was in a more Western setting in the south of France. These connections give an art museum context and root students in its purpose.
My most successful strategy begins with an understanding of exactly what art is, and the corollary, what makes good art, and when does it rise to the level of greatness. Simply put, why are these works granted space in these hallowed halls?
Try to make students understand the ways in which humans throughout history have tried to build mythologies that made sense of their confusing worlds. It begins with our need to communicate through representation. We saw this antelope. It looked like this. Watch me represent its dimensionality and movement with lines on this cave wall. These earliest acts flower into our great life philosophies, philosophy itself, the spiritual, the scientific, and the artistic. And in our more eclectic art collections, all of this is on display.
Ask the students, is there something sacred about this work or that makes you feel holy or part of a greater good? What moral or ethical umbrella might this artist have been working under? Does it reveal a darkness or magnanimity in the human condition? Or both? And, often forgotten as well, what kind of science did it take to create this work? For example, in Canova’s monumental sculpture Perseus with the Head of Medusa, 1806, I’ll remind students that without the balance of the sword he holds outstretched in his right hand, the weight of Medusa’s head in his outstretched left would simply topple the entire piece over. It takes science to create good art. Artists had to mix their own paints once, with a complex understanding of pigment production, mineral oil proportion, and the lightness and thickness of glazes, depending on how one wanted to layer a painting. In fact, I’d go so far as to suggest that it is the idea of art that informs science. If you can make a model of anything, it can be built out there in the world. Communicators used on the set of Star Trek are in our pockets today. These are concepts young children can comprehend.
I also find it helpful to point out to students that there is nothing in a great work of art that is not supposed to be there, in the same way there is not one note in a Beethoven quartet he did not agonize over or a word in a great novel that was not intentionally used exactly where it was. Have them try to account for everything in a work of art, every tree, branch, and leaf. Because art has a level of immortality, because Monet could create such a specific atmosphere, that that day lives on forever. The more specific an artist is, the more universal his effect can be on a worldwide audience throughout the rest of history. The more specific students are asked to be in their descriptions, in their exploration, the more they will tap into this universality.
So let’s start with the very young.
I like bringing really young kids to any modern collection that has abstract pieces among its works. And most cities have a modern and/or contemporary collection. We have a Western and chronological bias towards representational art as it is most accessible to our sensibilities. But I think children are closer to the primal forces behind Abstract Expressionism. These artists were influenced by primitive art, but primitive does not mean less than. “Primal” is indeed a better word.
Prepare for such a visit by having these students create some pieces of their own. Give them crayons and paper. And tell them to do a drawing of anger, a drawing of sadness, a drawing of fear, a drawing of joy. As many as you can. Then bring them to the collection and see if their style is close to that of any of the artists on display. I’ve had kids create Pollack-like patterns, Cy Twombly swirls, Basquiat stick men, a Rothko window. Very similar. And then try to make the connection: It is hard to talk about our feelings, but you could express them and pretty facilely through line, through color. These were artists whose vocabulary was shattered after the horror of two World Wars. They couldn’t paint the world as they saw it any longer. It made no sense, all that sadness and rage, or the unexpected joy of an unlikely reunion. The capriciousness was overwhelming, overwhelming their previous concepts of the sacred, the philosophical, the failure of science. They had to paint the world as they felt it, exactly like you. What made them great was that they thought of this first, and they expanded our capacity to experience the world with this new language of the heart.
And that, to me, is the greatest lesson of art: While good art reflects the human condition. great art predicts the human condition. Great art points the way in the darkness. Great art expands our capacity to know, to feel, to love.
Every great piece of art tells a story, and is, indeed interactive to the extent that our experience of it goes beyond the objective elements that organize the work. Rodin’s The Burghers of Calais is a great example of this. Objectively, I’ll have students describe it to me. It is one piece of bronze. (Of what is bronze an alloy?) These are six men. They seem to be engaged in a conversation. They range in age from the very young to the very old. Ropes are around some of their necks. They have very big hands and very big feet. Now I’ll give them a little backstory. Calais was under siege. (What is a siege? Where is Calais?) And I do keep asking questions, engaging them constantly. The town leaders, “burghers,” were told if they surrendered to be executed, the invading English forces would spare the lives of the rest of the city. Six lives for a few thousand. And I’ll make it immediate for them: They just got this news and they are fighting over what their response should be. Now, put words in their mouths. Go.
At this point you can mediate the conversation–for example it always strikes me that the younger burghers seem feisty and animated in their unwillingness to die while the older wiser ones seem to recognize the logic of the math, six lives for a thousand or two–but always try to validate. Because their responses are entirely valid. This is the subjective quality of art they need to recognize and cultivate, that their experience is true as much as anyone else’s, and everyone else can inform each other. The sense of my story may be different from yours and still true. That certain truths can coexist, is another of the great lessons of art.
Use each work of art to tell stories, the story the artist may have wanted to convey, the story you will take home with you, how they align, how they may deviate. It can be done with any work of art. And the more students realize this, that they can decipher stories, the fuller their experience will be, the more connections they will make, and the more confident they will be approaching works of art on their own in the future.
Be prepared. Know some fun facts about each work to which you expose them–that’s future President James Monroe holding the flag right behind Washington as they cross the Delaware in Emanuel Leutze’s shockingly enormous masterpiece–and know the cultural context that may have given rise to a particular movement. Our new understanding of psychology gave birth to Modernism. Why, guys? Because we now understood there is a difference between sensation, or what our senses capture, and perception, or how our individual brains uniquely perceive and organize these signals. Where I stand in the universe is slightly or vastly different from where you do. “This is what I perceive when I see Mont Sainte-Victoire,” said Cézanne. Do you? Better still, can you try? The call of solidarity in modernism is exactly this, let us try to see the world through each others’ eyes, in each others’ shoes. Let us try to understand each other. Students get that.
And make it geeky fun. Seurat predicts pixels on your television set with his points of paint. Degas invents the snapshot, spying on the corps de ballet at the Paris Opera and capturing incidental middle-class moments. Vermeer used a camera obscura to create stunningly accurate gradations in light. Kids eat that stuff up.
As long as you are constantly validating your students’ experience of each work, are enthusiastic about the leaps these artists were taking in forecasting the human condition, making them and their stories alive and in the moment, the dust flies off their bones and artists stand before their works again, immortal. Children sometimes have difficulty understanding that humans before their time were like them. Couple that with their nascent nagging sense of mortality, and museums can be a reminder of all the wrong things. These were women and men just like you, tell them, and they live on forever, and now, in you, in rooms that are the opposite of dusty and irrelevant. They are the corridors at the core of who we are as a species.
Jeffrey Plunkett is a professional actor living in NYC. He has also been a licensed NYC Sightseeing Guide for seventeen years. He counts over 30,000 visitors among his clients. He frequently guest lectures at The Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Museum of Modern Art. Jeffrey writes about New York City on NYC With Jeff, and you can also follow his explorations on Facebook.
*Cover Image: The Cathedrals of Art, Stettheimer (1942), Metropolitan Museum of Art