On an average day in Prague, one visitor was overwhelmed by massive allegories, portraits, and mythical interpretations by Peter Paul Rubens and enjoying the luxury of a nearly empty Baroque art museum. Suddenly, a group of high school students rushed in and straight toward the seating in the middle of the room. They chatted, texted, lounged, yawned – and did not look at the art.
The room immediately following was dedicated to the education of children. Each display was interactive and evidence of art classes hung about the room. But where is the link? Children are encouraged to interact with museums – they are entertained, but are expected, only a few years later as young adults, to be quietly respectful and have little to bridge the gap. We could, instead, continue to encourage interaction with new displays that replace Saskia van Rijn’s face with your own, or edible displays where you eat your way through a Dutch still lives (sans moths, flies, and freshly killed pheasant).
Or, perhaps, art is not a form of entertainment. Perhaps museums are more like sanctuaries or libraries – places to be quiet, to reflect, and to learn.
Enthusiasm for art history does not usually begin with mere exposure to fine paintings, but a knowledge of these works. Seeing paintings after studying their history, technique, symbolism, sponsor or sitter, and artist is absolutely wonderful. To change your mind while surrounded by portraits and decide, “no, I actually prefer Rubens to van Dyck,” that is really something.
There are many options and methods for the education departments of museums, visits to schools, and classes, but this does not address the 10 year old or 14 year old visitors in school groups or dragging their feet behind their parents.
Unfortunately, there isn’t much a museum can do for young adults to coax them into understanding in a single visit. Their parents and schools have the responsibility to begin an early cultivation for art. Museums need not grovel before children with promises of entertainment – we all know they would be better entertained elsewhere, and frankly, it’s embarrassing.
Note: My best friend grew up mainly in Europe. I remember her writing to me as a junior higher, saying that she and her sister were scolded by a tour guide on a trip to Versailles. Apparently the wall they were leaning against was gold.