SEVERAL YEARS ago, when the van Gogh exhibit was in town, I agonized over whether I should take my young son. As much as it was something I wanted him to experience, I also knew that a child might not be a welcome sight at the crowded and popular event. Ultimately, I decided to van Gogh it alone, leaving my son behind until he was a little bit older.
Now he is older, but his younger brother is right behind him, and with two kids, ages 4 and 8, our museum experiences are generally limited to crossover exhibits deemed to have kid appeal -- those that feature children's programs or attractions that involve the words "air" and "space."
When I read about the free Art + Fun Packs for children at the Baltimore Museum of Art I was skeptical: I had low expectations when it came to the world of high art. Too many activities billed as "educational family fun" result in bored kids and frustrated parents. Yet the idea was intriguing. The backpacks, I read, come in three varieties: Sketch, Song and Costume. They are free for use during museum visits and available to adults as well as children, though the costume and song packs have more obvious child appeal.
"The idea behind the packs is to promote active learning, involving children and parents with art," explains Allison Perkins, the museum's deputy director of education and interpretation. "They are completely interactive."
But what happens when interactive meets hyperactive? Could these packs really stand up to two energetic boys and a museum housing prestigious and valuable collections? We were about to find out.
Our 8-year-old son chose the Song Pack, which came with a portable CD player, two sets of headphones and a CD of original songs inspired by artwork in the collection. Our preschooler was drawn to the Sketch Pack, though it's recommended for children slightly older, with its colored pencils, drawing paper and instruction book. I chose a Costume Pack, giving the kids a chance to try on an African headdress and shake a beaded rhythm instrument. (Another Costume Pack, which featured fancy lace finery and more feminine accoutrements, seemed designed with girls in mind.)
With the packs slung over our shoulders, we geared up to take a hike through the museum's hallowed halls. My children were genuinely excited, rifling through the packs' contents, a little surprised that everything included was for their use during the day.
Our first stop was the African art of the D'mba, where both children took turns trying on the massive carved wooden tribal headdress that matched the one displayed on the wall. They also listened to the songs on the CD that corresponded to the green numbered labels on the wall -- thoughtfully placed low, at a child's eye level. They bobbed their heads along with the rhythmic "D'mba" song, my older son reading about the music in the accompanying booklet, taking in information about harvest and planting celebrations, as his younger brother danced in circles around him.
After that first stop they were hooked, eager to travel through the exhibits looking for artwork with a label that matched an activity in their packs. Once they found one, they took their time, unpacking their gear and sitting down on the floor in front of a sculpture or painting.
In front of the famous "Pink Nude," by Matisse, my sons rocked out to music by the Tinklers (who sound a bit like They Might Be Giants), listening to the lyrics:
"Do you think that it is rude
To paint a woman in the nude?
Or is it just a painter's duty
To show the human body as a thing of beauty?"
If they liked a song, they pressed repeat and listened to it again. And they stayed at many of the exhibits longer than they had at any of our previous museum forays.
The Sketch Pack was also a big hit. Although it introduced concepts that were a bit advanced for my youngest son -- perspective, negative space, dark and light shading -- both children were more than willing to sit on the floor and draw, following the pack's instructions and suggestions. The packs also brought about an interesting reversal of roles. Several times I found that I was ready to move on before my children; I was eager to keep going, while they stayed rooted, working on a drawing or listening to the same song several times in a row.
"What we are trying to do is nurture a relationship with art that will hopefully last throughout their lives," Perkins says. I don't know if my sons are on a lifelong path as appreciators of fine art, though I would certainly be happy if that were the case. What I do know is that in the museum store on the way out, we stopped and bought the BMA songs on CD, and listened to them several more times on the way home, humming and singing along to music that reminded us of the exhibits we had seen and the fun we had that day.
ART + FUN PACKS -- Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Art Museum Dr., Baltimore. 410-396-7100. www.artbma.org. BMA packs are free and available to all museum visitors Thursday, Saturday and Sunday from 11 to 3. $7; seniors $5; children 18 and younger free.