From the MET to the Getty, museums love and cater to their youngest guests—it’s difficult to find an establishment that doesn’t have a kids' program in place. But once your child hits the tween years, the number of museum-run activities geared toward her age group start to shrink. And it doesn’t help that, for many adolescents, their interest in touring a museum with mom and dad dwindles during these years, too.
While getting your tweens or teens excited about arts-related outings can be challenging, it’s important to encourage visits during their middle school and high school years. Clearly, exposure to all types of art will broaden their experience and knowledge base, but it’s also important to the future of museums. “Museums are aging out their audiences,” says Gabrielle Wyrick, associate director of education at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in Boston. “If we don’t cultivate future audiences we could lose some museums.”
If your child doesn’t have a natural interest in touring museum galleries, read on for tips from the experts—and teenagers themselves—on how to engage your student at the museum.
Move beyond Monet. If your teenager’s prior experiences with museums involved quiet gallery halls packed with centuries-old paintings, it may be time to change his perception. This isn’t to say that all teens find French Impressionism snooze-worthy or that historical art shouldn't be part of their education; but if you want to establish the building blocks of a relationship with museums, it's best to start with something he can relate to.
Suggest a visit to a nearby modern arts or contemporary museum, as their exhibitions explore subjects that will grab adolescents’ attentions, such as issues of identity, gender, and technology. “It’s important for teens to realize that their passions can be found in a museum, and that you don’t need to be fluent in the arts to connect with the exhibits,” says Romario Accime, a high school senior who works on the ICA Teen Arts Council. Arm your child with a museum map and encourage him to wander around until he finds something that speaks to him.
Think young. Thankfully, more and more museums are establishing teen-directed programs, such as adolescent-led tours of the museum, teen nights, and teen councils like the ICA's program, where youth are paid to plan and market events to help expand the museum's young audience. Ask your local museums if they have anything similar in place, and—if possible—schedule a visit to the museum while a teen event is happening. “Teenagers may shy away from museums because they feel out of place or like the establishments don’t speak to them. But if someone their age leads them through the exhibit and shows enthusiasm for the arts, your child will feel welcome there and be much more receptive,” says Carda Burke, youth programs coordinator at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City.
Remember that traditional museum rules (No talking! No phones!) may put off teenagers who are naturally social. While it's important to be respectful of the institution and fellow visitors, allow her to carry on a discussion with a friend or shoot off a text message—who knows, maybe she's discussing the artwork around her!
Work with the web. If your child already spends hours a day glued to his computer or Smartphone, use the opportunity to encourage him to explore the museum online. Many institutions, such as the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore and New York City’s MoMA, have interactive portions of their site devoted to teens. Or suggest that he “friend” the museum—or better yet, the museum’s teen council—on Facebook. This way, he can learn about new exhibitions, find out when teen nights are being held, and connect with kids his age who have a passion for the arts—all with the easy click of a button. And if you do find an exhibition to attend, try sharing an article or two that discusses the showcase with him via email. He may have zero interest in hearing you give a rundown on what he’s going to see, but there’s a good chance he’ll give the news article a glance.
Split up. Staying glued to your teen’s side is a good way to turn a trip to the museum into a family feud. Stepping back and giving her the freedom to walk through the building by herself can be key in kick-starting your child’s appreciation for museums. “Letting your child tour the exhibits by herself will give her a sense of independence, and it may encourage her to explore some art that she normally would roll her eyes at if you were around,” says Wyrick. Set a meeting spot and time, and then part ways. Or, better yet, drop your child off at the museum solo or with her friends so that the time is completely hers. If you join back up to discover that your teen is still dismissive about the museum experience, don’t be discouraged. “Many teens act as if they had a miserable time as a defense mechanism, but I’ve seen those same kids come back and enjoy their time at the ICA,” says Wyrick.
Skip the schooling. Your child gets plenty of lectures from her teachers, so pass on the pop quiz on the drive home about Picasso’s cubism style or rise of Postmodernism. And while you’re at it, ditch the guidebooks or audio tours; the exposure to art is enough of a lesson in itself.
Predicting how your teenager's interactions with the arts today will play out years from now is near impossible. She may be won over and choose a career in the field, or she may continue to be an infrequent museum visitor as an adult. But gentle encouragement throughout the high school years to make time for museums can help ensure that on some level—no matter how small—art remains part of her life.