Look. The art appreciation class I took in college doesn’t make me an expert museum-goer. I enjoy looking at art. I enjoy discovering art I like. I’ll choose to spend my time at museums or galleries when I travel alone. But I wouldn’t call myself “passionate” about any of it. At least not enough to convince my less-enthused family to go look at art with me. Other travel experience left us feeling wary of shepherding our kids through a crowded attraction that had no hands-on features for the kids. (Looking at you, Vatican Museum.)
Last year my youngest developed an interest in van Gogh’s art. He asked to read the book from the van Gogh museum in Amsterdam before bed some nights. He started noticing sunflowers on walks and drives. So it was with great delight that I recently learned van Gogh’s Sunflowers painting hangs at The National Gallery in London. I promised myself I’d take him there some day to see it.
Then we had an opportunity to have lunch with a family friend while she was in London, and I convinced the gang to visit The National Gallery. And you know what? It was actually fun! Here’s how we made it work.
Pick some highlights
The National Gallery’s website is an excellent resource for planning your visit. It lists its top 30 highlights (in addition to its catalog of hundreds of thousands of paintings), each with a link to information about the painting and where to find it.
We didn’t feel pressure to see everything. London is a trip we can make in a day and the museum is free. So we went after the pieces we knew the kids would care about. The youngest had just learned about Pointillism, which led us to George Seurat. They both like van Gogh, so we put Sunflowers on the list. Having a few highlights to hit can keep you focused in a timeframe the kids can handle.
Set up a challenge
The oldest was less interested in the visit, but we picked a theme for him to look for on our way around. There weren’t too many paintings of knights and dragons after all, but he had fun looking for them.
Follow their lead
Ask your kiddo which painting in a room looks the most interesting to them and go check it out. My kids’ taste isn’t the same as mine, so we got to have good looks at paintings I would have otherwise overlooked. The youngest wanted to look at one painting because he thought it looked like Henry VIII (it was his ambassador to France!) and another because there was a cauldron in it. The oldest liked to see how Impressionist paintings looked different in real life vs. a photo.
Talk about what they see
My husband and I don’t have much to offer about techniques, but we can level with elementary-school age wonder about painting. We asked them about colors, light, form, texture… we looked up close and from across the room…then they started noticing these things about paintings they looked at on their own.
While there certainly is much to be learned about the evolution of art by progressing through the museum as intended, letting the kids have a good time will make them more willing to come back another time. They’ll have a chance to be bored by tours on school field trips some day. They won’t blame you then.
A docent gave us a tip that the staircase at the end of room 9 led down to a big, crowd-free room of paintings that isn’t always open. We were able to sit and really look at some paintings without being bumped by elbows and backpacks. The kids appreciated the break.
Don’t expect too much
Maybe one day I’ll go back with an audio guide which will cover in detail what I’m looking at in each painting. Maybe one day the kids will be interested in doing that, too. We aren’t at that phase of life and that’s OK.
Don’t overdo it
Surely someone will scoff at me saying this, but it is possible to see too much art (ahem, Italy). There’s nothing wrong with seeing the highlights and then being on your way if everyone is losing interest and focus.
Don’t be afraid of a bribe
There’s a restaurant and cafe on site. I’m not sure how you feel about bribing your children with treats, but it’s an option. We planned to hit up the LEGO store in Leicester Square while we were in the city, which no doubt helped keep attitudes positive.
Visiting crowded tourist spots with little kids can be really stressful. I always recommend checking websites before you go to see what’s available for children. Talk with your kiddos before you make the trip about what you expect of their behavior.
The National Gallery is located on the iconic Traflgar Square and has several entrances. Admission is free, though a bag check may mean you wait in line to get in. Perhaps you’ll even time your visit with one of their workshops for kiddos and families?
The bottom line, as with all travel: bring a load of patience and a good attitude, and you’ll have a great time!