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Mike Norris on museum education at the Met

by Jean Van't Hul
January 31, 2011

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Mike Norris, Museum Educator, oversees programs for families at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Here he shares his experience, gleaned from 20 years at the Met, on visiting art museums with children.

JEAN:  Why do you think it’s important for children to see and learn about great works of art?

MIKE:  Human beings are visual animals, built to observe from the earliest age, and great art gives a person visions that cannot be generated just from oneself, or that may not be found in nature. In a way, works of art are like dreams, with meaning that may or may not be totally understood, but they stay with you. 

As one of my teachers used to say, a great work of art is never exhausted, because the visual experience consists both of a work of art and the viewer's potential, and the latter changes over time.  It means that when an adult and a child look at a work of art together, each perceives it differently, according to each one's development. But it also means that the common sight might bring about a discussion, with each person learning about the other. 

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JEAN:  What do you want children to take away from a museum visit experience? And how do you try to make that happen?

MIKE:  Coming to the Met is more of a trip than a visit, since it sometimes feels, in its grandeur (which necessitates a lot of walking), that one has traveled to a foreign country. But, as with traveling, enjoying the road and each other's company is one of the best parts of the experience.  Having children excited by amazing visions in a beautiful environment in the beloved company of their family is what I wish for them.

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JEAN:  What do you think is the most important part of a museum visit for young children – a fun museum experience, art appreciation, learning about artists or art styles, learning about the potential of art materials, or simply exposure to art?

MIKE:  Of course, I would have to say all of the above!  But I would like to say something about "exposure to art." 

When I was a child my father, a naval officer, got stationed near Paris, France, for three years.  There, I visited museums with my school mates, walked to a medieval church for the Sunday service, passed medieval buildings on my way home.  For much of my time, I pined for the television programs I had left behind and ate as much French food as I could.  But years later, when I got into college here in the U.S., I eventually gravitated to studying medieval art history and that's what my doctorate is in. 

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JEAN:  What kinds of art do the children who visit The Met seem to understand or appreciate the best?

MIKE:  For the youngest visitor, sculpture is often popular, since one can be active in moving around to look at it; sometimes, one can even strike poses from it!  But children are not alike!  Sometimes when I bring a large group of them into a gallery each one looks at a different work of art. 

Let me also just say that the Met, as large as it is, usually just barely satisfies a child's insatiable curiosity. 

JEAN:  Will you share your favorite tips for making a museum visit successful with their children?

MIKE:  Before a visit, it's a good idea for parents to go to the Museum's Web site and, with their children, gather a list of works of art to see, making sure that at least part of the list is what the parents like.  In this mini pre-tour, as well as expressing their own interests, the children can learn something about their parents and, if the family then comes to the Museum, the trip can turn into a treasure hunt to find what's on their list, heightened by an exciting sense of "déjà vu."

A word of advice: After forty-five minutes or so in the galleries, it is usually a good idea to take a break, perhaps having lunch.  Then, rested up, you can probably spend another forty-five minutes in the Museum.

JEAN:  Thanks so much for sharing, Mike!

I absolutely love what your teacher used to say, about a great work of art never being exhausted "because the visual experience consists both of a work of art and the viewer's potential." What an eye-opening statement! I guess I never thought about art that way. I love the idea that the experience of the artwork is changing all the time as the viewer changes and grows!

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