On a recent trip to Florence, I had the pleasure of sitting down for a cappuccino with two American expat friends of mine. Both lead guided tours on the art and history of Florence and teach courses at the local universities. Our meeting spot, the coffee bar at the Palazzo Strozzi museum, turned out to be a popular place for the Florence museum elite. With only a bachelor’s degree in women’s studies, I felt a bit intimidated, but I never felt out of my element. After getting my cappuccino at the bar, I sat down with my friends to discuss the major players in European art history, like many Americans discuss the Kardashians.
Not being familiar with the who’s who in this art-filled city, I relied on my friends to fill me in on the important people that shared our space. It wasn’t long before we were greeted by the director of the Palazzo Strozzi Museum. He is a friendly man, slightly older than myself, with one of those smiles that makes you feel instantly at ease. My friend introduced me, and we all began to chat about the project I was working on – a family travel guide to Tuscany. I gushed about how much I love his museum, and how much admiration I have for his children’s program. The Strozzi is, indeed, my favorite museum in Florence. We discussed the importance of teaching art to children, and what an asset his museum is for families visiting Florence. At the end of the conversation, he handed me his card, asked me to send him the manuscript of my guide, and offered the possibility of writing the prologue. I was in the clouds; what a fortuitous meeting.
Soon after, the director of another museum in Florence arrived at the coffee bar. I won’t mention the museum by name, but I will say that it happens to be one of the best known in the world. The man, obviously Italian and about the age of my father, made his way to his table. He was joined by a few others, who were all carrying notebooks; it looked as if a meeting were about to take place. Never one to miss an opportunity and riding on the joy of the previous introduction, I asked my friend to introduce us. By the time we got across the bar, we entered into what had become a queue of sorts. I felt as if he was holding court – everyone wanted to speak with him.
While we were waiting, we introduced ourselves to one of the people sitting at his table. With British formality, she greeted us. I explained to her that I was writing a travel guide for families visiting Tuscany, guiding them to the best places to go. She pursed her lips, and after an extended blink, with eyebrows raised, she responded, “Yes, and where not to go.”
Did she just say what I think she said?
Moments later, it was our turn with the director. My friend introduced me, and he greeted us with slight trepidation, perhaps for taking up his time. Being that my friend is fluent in Italian, I had asked her to explain my inquiry. My Italian is getting better, but I thought I would pass on this chance to mistakenly say something, or to offend him by butchering his language. His response to her was chilly, to say the least.
He scoffed at our inquiry to know more of the opportunities for families in his museum, and directed us to contact the person in charge of such things. We walked away, more offended than embarrassed. The overall impression we gathered from the director and his minion? Children do not belong in museums. When we sat back down, I received an earful from my friends about how this has been a prevalent issue with the museum elite in Florence. I was rather surprised; I had no idea this was even an issue until today. The presence of children in museums is a divided issue, and it was quite clear who stood on which side during these encounters. On my latest visit to Florence with my children, I didn’t even bother to revisit this director’s museum because of its lack of catering to families.
I was stunned at the difference in attitudes regarding children visiting art museums. On the whole, I find the children of travelers to be quite respectful in museums. Art directors worldwide can only benefit from including families in their vision. Art enhances creativity and imagination. Art encourages cognition, critical thinking, and learning. Isn’t this what we want to bring to our children? Is this not what we expect from them as adults?
I write this letter in hope of enlightening museum directors around the world as to the importance of exposing children to the arts.
Dear Fine Art Museum Director,
For the past 2 months, I have been immersed in one of the most incredibly enriching jobs of my life. I have been teaching Italian Renaissance art history to elementary age school students in the US. Thus far, we have covered Michelangelo, Leonardo, Donatello, Ghiberti, Brunelleschi, and Raphael. Our next artist will be Lavinia Fontana. I teach the children about the techniques, the various styles, and the lives of these artists. I often speak to them in Italian, and have been more than impressed with their quick ability to grasp the language.
Learning about Michelangelo’s experience painting the Sistine Chapel was a hands-on experience. It filled me with joy to hear their gasps when I showed them images of the chapel itself. What an amazing experience for them to hear the story of how Michelangelo did not even consider himself a painter, but a sculptor, and yet he was able to produce one of the finest works of art in the world. It’s a wonderful lesson in never selling yourself short.
Here are my five year olds painting their very own “Sistine Chapel.”
I taught about the various forms of sculpture, and we looked at examples of each. The students learned of Brunelleschi and Ghiberti’s constant competing, the great success of Brunelleschi’s dome, and Ghiberti’s minor redemption with his golden doors. The children carved their own relief sculptures into a bar of soap, and created a life size sculpture by plaster casting their own bodies. While I wasn’t able to show them Michelangelo’s David because of the nudity, they swooned when they saw images of the Pieta.
We discussed the art that came out of Venice during the Renaissance, and created our own Venetian-style art, with the sounds of Venetian composer Vivaldi filling the room.
The students discovered the great influence the Medicis’ love of art had during this period, studied the five balls in orle gules on the Medici shield, and created their own coats of arms.
This term, the students are excited to continue learning about the masters and creating their own masterpieces. Our next activity will involve painting frescoes and learning about natural pigment.
At the end of the year, we hold an art showcase of the children’s art pieces. It is here where families can come to enjoy what their children have been creating. It is also here where all can practice the museum etiquette they have learned in class.
It is my belief that exposing children to the arts at an early age fosters a lifetime of respect. I only wish I could be there to see the looks on their faces when they gaze first-hand at Botticelli’s Venus rising from the sea, crane their necks to see God gracing Adam with his soul, and witness their speechlessness at the perfection of David.
I implore you to consider your programs for families as a critical element to your museum. These are the children that will be our future academics, art historians, and patrons of the arts.
Open your doors and allow them to see and to feel the beauty; create an atmosphere where they will have the opportunity to understand the art, and feel welcomed into the space. Build the pathway to their inspiration.
You may very well be touring the next Leonardo.
Academie da Vinci School of the Arts
I invite you, directors, parents, educators, and patrons of the arts, to share your thoughts in the comments below.
I look forward to an open dialogue on how you feel about exposing our children to the arts and welcoming them into our museums.