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by Russell Ihrig
When we announced that we would begin offering “Baby Tours,” I certainly encountered some skepticism. “Oh Boy, that ought to be fun,” people would say and chuckle. “Just make sure nobody spits up on the art.” I understood the underlying message of these snide comments: that leading an art museum tour for infants is pointless. Babies can’t possibly enjoy the deep history and culture that an art museum has to offer, right?
In some ways these cynics are correct. If visiting an art museum is simply a recital of famous names, dates, places and genres, then no, a baby isn’t going to get much out of that. Then again, does anyone get much out of that experience? If I had said that I was going to play music for babies, I wonder if anyone would scoff. We seem to understand that you can listen to music for pure pleasure, but somehow looking at art has to be constantly weighed down by history and context.
And for the record I LOVE history and context. On my first “test” Baby Tour, I couldn’t help provide a little of those juicy, fun facts for the parents. What I quickly discovered though is that the more I spoke, the more distracting I was being. The babies were looking at me instead of the art.
By the time we launched our first official tour, I took a very different approach. Because our age range is age 0-2, I realized interests would be completely different for every child. Newborn infants are still developing their vision and respond better to high contrast and bright images. An older baby, however, is excited to identify subject matters like animals, faces, and other babies. Instead of leading the group from object to object, I lead the group to galleries that provide a good range of stimuli for the children. Parents and children are free to move around the space and look at objects for as long as they like and discover what is exciting to them. Before I began this tour, I expected we would have a lot of of crying and fussiness because… well… babies. But amazingly the babies are so focused on the artwork and all of this new stimuli that they rarely seem to cry on the tour.
At the end of each tour we take some time to discuss what was a highlight for each of the babies. While looking at one of our still life paintings by Georges Bracque, one little girl got so excited that she began waving her arms up and down. One mom told me that her child seemed to prefer 19th century portraiture. While looking at our collection of Buddhist art, a grandmother told me that her grandchild was transfixed by a sculpture of Jizō and stared at it for two straight minutes. Considering that the average viewer spends 15-30 seconds in front of an artwork, I think babies might be better at this than the rest of us.
Now when people ask me with a hint of skepticism how the Baby Tours are doing, I let them know that the babies are probably the best viewers of art that I’ve had the pleasure to tour. A baby brings no prejudice or bias to a work of art. They don’t mind if a piece is completely abstract, because they haven’t been taught to expect otherwise. They cherish the sheer joy of looking with fresh eyes. I hope everyone can learn to be such good viewers. We should all stop worrying about what we don’t know, and feel confident to experience the art from where we are at that moment. If it works for someone who’s only been on the planet for a few months, it will probably work for you too.
Upcoming Baby Tours:
March 20, 2015
May 15, 2015
To learn more about family programs at the Cincinnati Art Museum, check out our Family Programs page.Reserve your spot for the baby tour today by calling 513.721.ARTS