Museum reframes kids’ time with art
Activities at the new “Explore! With the National Portrait Gallery” exhibition include drawing silhouettes with a light box, left, and building faces with photo blocks.
While many children’s museums are painted in primary colors and festooned with oversized nuts and bolts, a child-focused space that opens Saturday at the National Portrait Gallery has taken a more subtle approach.
The exhibit, “Explore! With the National Portrait Gallery,” aims to be a seamless extension of the larger museum, says Rebecca Kasemeyer, the gallery’s associate director of education and visitor experience. In a wood-floored gallery space, interactive activities presented on elegant pedestals inspire children to think of themselves as real artists.
“The goal is for children to begin to think critically about the choices artists make and take what they’ve learned into the rest of the museum,” Kasemeyer says.
One of the activities invites chil- dren to draw their caretaker’s silhouette with the aid of a light box and tracing paper. As the young artists negotiate with their subjects’ preferences — deciding, for instance, whether the model should tilt his or her head up to get rid of a double chin — they get a feel for the minefield of vanity that artists like John Singer-Sargent navigated when depicting the rich and famous.
Another exhibit, called “Strike a Pose,” lets children create self-portraits in the form of five-second videos. The videos then appear on a square, 25-screen grid designed by New York-based artist Amanda Long. The activity gets kids to think broadly about portraiture, which can include moving and interactive images as well as traditional oil paintings, Kasemeyer says.
“I think it ties in nicely to the rest of the museum — especially the Bill Viola exhibition up right now,” Kasemeyer says. “He’s a video artist, and perhaps children will look differently at his work after making their own videos.”
The roughly 750-square-foot exhibition, which is targeted toward children 18 months to 8 years old, was produced in partnership with the Explore! Children’s Museum of Washington, D.C., a museum slated to open in the Fort Totten neighborhood in 2019. One goal of the Portrait Gallery’s children’s exhibit — which will run for at least a year — is to give parents a taste of what’s to come, says Rhonda Buckley-Bishop, the Explore! Children’s Museum’s president and chief executive.
“The exhibits at the Portrait Gallery give a preview of what we will have at the Explore! Children’s Museum — play-based learning, with instructions in English and Spanish, for children with different developmental needs,” Buckley-Bishop says.
Buckley-Bishop wanted to host the children’s museum’s preview exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery rather than another of Washington’s many museums because portraiture is a particularly accessible art form and because of the museum’s Metro-accessible, Penn Quarter location.
Plus, she thinks the National Portrait Gallery’s building is gorgeous. She especially loves that the new, jewel-toned children’s area has a few paintings from the gallery’s collection hung on the walls, she says.
“I think it’s designed perfectly for children, but it’s aesthetically very pleasing for adults, too.”
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