The Singing and the Silence: Birds in Contemporary Art

Over the holidays you may be in need of family-friendly spaces to head to that interest children and adults. Some museum exhibits are so obviously ready for young audiences, with hands-on components, room for strollers, and well defined boundaries for the objects. The exhibit, The Singing and the Silence: Birds in Contemporary Art at Smithsonian American Art Museum has none of these at first glance and may seem to be strictly for adults. With that being said, this is a beautiful and captivating exhibit that can be wonderfully successful for all ages if you come prepared!

Smithsonian American Art MuseumAmong the many pieces, three works are must sees for families. At the entrance of the show you’ll encounter James Prosek’s work What Once Was. Its black and white imagery covers the entire wall, evoking the field guides for birds where you can match the silhouette to a number in a key (bring one if you have it lying around).

This piece has no key and slowly replaces the passenger pigeon’s outline with stand-in numbers, reminding us adults that we slowly extinguished the species.  For children, the space is open enough to invite plopping down and simply looking and sharing what you see. The shapes and numbers evoke paint by numbers, coloring books, or shadows. Bring hands-on components such as a stuffed animal bird, or even present a bird coloring book to choose a picture to color later on at home or downstairs in the Kogod Courtyard.

Directly ahead, the first piece you will come across is Zungunruhe, by Rachel Berwick. It is a large tree with glass, peachy colored passenger pigeons. This piece is great for all ages to explore as it comes surrounded by mirrored walls as part of the installation. The singular tree is reflected and repeated to create the feel of a forest. Little ones can look up into the tree and see if moving around the mirrors can make the birds appear to fly.

Adults can get lost in the repetition of form and think about the common theme of the extinct passenger pigeon. A stuffed animal bird can flap its wing, or bird calls from an app could fill the air. The piece inspires movement and is well-enough removed from other objects to allow children to flap and stretch a bit.

Next, head either left or right to explore the main room. Here a little more stroller control or hand holding will be required. Keeping minds and hands engaged will help immensely. Since photography is not allowed, try snapping pretend pictures of your favorite bird or object, maybe even look up the bird call. Wind around to stand between Petah Coyne’s two untitled pieces. These huge works are crafted from lavish textures and rich colors.

There are striking white animals against the dark forms. Adults and children alike will be tempted to reach out and touch this art. Instead, bring a small bag filled with bits of fuzzy velvet, crunchy crepe paper, and fake flowers as a great tactile experience to reach into. To extend your looking, sort cut-outs of light and dark birds or play eye-spy for other animals.

With a little at-home preparation you can really turn most exhibits into family friendly spaces that keep everyone’s hands, bodies, and minds engaged. But get there quickly, these birds fly out February 22nd.

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Photos courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum website.

by Sara CardelloMuseum and Community Resource Specialist

The Smithsonian Early Enrichment houses a lab school for the Smithsonian serving children aged 3 months to 6 years. SEEC also offers weekend workshops for families with young children. Come learn, explore and play with us!

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