We went to the art museum to see an exhibit of Roman art that was in our fair city on loan from the Louvre.
En route, I had the kids take turns reading short chapters about ancient Rome from a kids’ history book. I wanted them to have some historical context for the sculptures, busts, and reliefs they were about to view, so they took turns reading about Romulus & Remus, Julius, Augustus, and Nero.
Then we arrived at the museum. As we walked toward the building, I reminded the children to speak softly and just look, don’t touch. We started practicing softer voices, then walked along the sidewalk silently for a few steps.
As we neared the door, my son asked, “Can we breathe through our mouths in the museum?”
“Yes. You can breathe through your nose or your mouth.”
“Oh, good!” he exclaimed.
“But don’t breathe heavily on the statues,” I warned. “And resist the urge to touch.”
They laughed about it as we headed into the show.
I’ve never studied art history, though I’ve read books like The Annotated Mona Lisa: A Crash Course in Art History from Prehistoric to Post-Modern and Sister Wendy’s Story of Painting. I’m self-taught at a surface level, so here’s why I like about looking at art with kids:
I’m Forced to Slow Down and Really See the Art
First, in order to get them to really look at something, I have to really look at it. I scan the information posted nearby—date, artist, name of the piece or subject matter, etc—then I look at the piece of art.
I try to take note of some detail that will entice the kids to stop and look, as well. I try to capture their interest for a moment or two, because, you know, you can’t blame them for assuming at first glance that it all looks the same. The first couple of rooms could just appear to be a bunch of nondescript, chipped up, old marble statues. I suppose that’s what they are.
Until you look.
Until you consider the context. The age. The history. The amazing talent of sculptors from a couple hundred years BC to a few hundred years AD.
Boy, was I glad we’d read aloud the stories about Julius and Augustus on our way, because we stopped and read the placards to discover that there was a big statue of Augustus and his wife, Livia. And then there was Tiberius and Caligula and Nero. We could talk about Jesus’ birth in the time of Pax Romana. A mom behind us pointed to the statue of Tiberius and said to her son, “When Jesus was crucified on the cross, this man was in power.”
We looked at ancient Roman jewelry, and my son, enthralled by the gold, pulled out a pencil and his tiny notebook and sketched some of the diadems and necklaces. We stood next to him as he stared and sketched, following the lines and curves with his eye and reproducing them as closely as possible on the humble lined paper of his tiny, spiral-bound notebook.
I Can Say Almost Anything about the Art
Then came other observations and comments that make me very happy to be with children in an art exhibit—you can note or say anything and people generally grin and nod, appreciating the attempt to introduce kids to art.
Nobody seems to judge my ignorance.
Nobody’s expecting erudite comments.
We’re just looking and responding to it.
What’s more, this day the place was packed with students on field trips, so everybody was relaxed and enjoying themselves.
This is what my kids and I noticed:
Nero looked practically angelic as a young boy. As we stood in front of his statue, I remarked, “He looks so innocent.”
The Boy loudly responded, “Yes, but he was baaad news.”
This lady and the one next to her had an intricate mass of curls encircling their faces. “Those curls look like Cheerios,” I said, “or Froot Loops.”
“They do!” the kids laughed. “They really do!”
We came upon a room with some, um, toga-less statues, shall we say. One of the girls said, “Ugh. This room is unappealing.”
I didn’t know what she meant until I caught a glimpse of the statues along the side wall. “Oh! I see what you mean. They seem to have forgotten their togas.”
“I find it…unappealing,” she repeated.
“Well, it’s just how they made a lot of old art,” I said. “We’ll take a quick look and move along.”
Kids Notice Things I’d Pass By
As we came to the first one, a smug-looking Paris, my son realized there was a problem. “Look, he’s missing some of his… (pause; then, in a stage whisper) private parts.” Indeed, he was. You’d never know it by his demeanor.
Several mosaics pieced together from tiny squares and chips—tesserae. Their colors were subtle. How could the artist know how to place those things in such a way that they could form people and animals? How could it stay in such great shape for so long? Two of them were floors.
We saw a boxy urn for ashes. I explained to the kids what it was used for. Their response? “Gross.”
One relief showed a person holding a bull by its nostrils and stabbing it with a sword. “Look at the blood trickling down,” I said.
“Gross,” the kids said.
A couple of statues of some god with extra-thick hair and beard who is associated with regeneration made us laugh. He was missing a limb and a nose. I wonder how many other people made the same connection. “Looks like he needs to regenerate his own nose,” I observed.
One of the girls pointed out another small sculpture of the same guy. “Hey, here he needs to regenerate a leg!”
“He sure seems to be generating a big head of hair.”
I thought the most intricate and beautiful of all the art in the exhibit was this girl. Unfortunately, you can’t see the detail in her hair or the folds of her lower skirt undulating at her feet. How do sculptors do that? How could they carve such intricate detail into a hunk of marble? How do they give the impression of movement?
How do they look at a hunk of marble and know just what to chip away to create such realistic lines? How can they tap away at such a hard, cold, unforgiving material and leave behind what seems to be soft folds of fabric, draped luxuriously over somebody’s arm?
And how can it all stay in such great condition for so many years?
Sure, a few have lost a thumb, foot, finger, nose, or top of an ear…and as we noted, more than one piece lost its private parts…but so many of them were intact, every Froot Loop in place. I suppose that art historians and conservationists are paid diddly squat for their work, not to mention the archaeologists who unearth and clean up the treasures in the first place. But they deserve our thanks.
Thanks to their diligence, thousands of years after those busts and statues were formed, four young kids could meet up with history, and a mom could enjoy a chance to see art with kids.
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