Visiting the National Gallery of Art with Kids

Some museum spaces can be large and intimidating for a family audience. The National Gallery of Art might, at first, seem like such a place. For audiences of all ages, engaging with the art will make the experience much more enjoyable. Here are a few tips and pieces to check out on a family visit to NGA.

National Gallery of ArtStart off heading in the western entrance, located on 7th street. There are a few shallow steps, so if this is not an option, take the accessible entrance on Constitution. Please note that any back-pack style bag will need to be checked at the coat check, all other bags should be fine. Beyond the foyer, the first gallery that is on your left, number 19, is a great place to start.

This room is designed to look like the great hall of a castle. It has soaring ceilings with heavy beams and walls covered in tapestry. The furniture is lined with velvet.  I suggest bringing a scrap of velvet, if you have it, to let children touch and scrunch. I also like bringing a sample piece of marble to feel its coolness against the skin.

Castle walls were made out of stone and extremely cold to the touch, during the winter, tapestries were hung to warm the rooms, like a blanket for the walls. If none of that is your speed, it’s just a great place to bring a favorite castle themed book and read in a corner.

Back out in the main hall, to the left, is gallery 39. This space hosts contemporary pieces misplaced while the East building is undergoing renovations. Head toward Lavender Mist, the large canvas by Jackson Pollock. He is known for his action paintings. He would lay canvas on the floor and dribble, splatter, and fling paint. So much of the story of this artwork is in the creation.

Before coming to the museum, cut lengths of white, black, gray, and purple string. Encourage your child to recreate their own National Gallery of Artaction painting by drizzling yarn on the floor. As long as the process isn’t filled with too much action and the yarn pieces are long enough to not leave bits behind, it should be an excellent way to engage with the art.

Upstairs, on the main floor of the building, you will find Italian, Dutch, French, and American art, among others. In the East and West sides of the building there are quiet atriums with plenty of seating if anyone needs a rest. Near the middle of the museum, on the right, are galleries 50 and 50b, filled with Dutch still-life.

One technique to make these paintings coming alive is to awaken the sense of smell. A Cotton ball, essential oil (or extract) and an old spice container can let you smell the cherries and lemons in safe way in the galleries.

Finally, toward the eastern side of the museum is a favorite of mine, Watson and the Shark, in gallery 60b. This piece depicts the real life story of 14 year old Brook Watson taking a swim in the Havana Harbor when he discovers it is shark infested. His crewmates come to save him and the painting shows the height of the drama…does he escape? To find out, act it out.

Have someone lay down like Watson, someone lay down like the shark and anyone else can be in the boat, and press play.  As the crew grab his hands and reach him out of the water the shark grabs hold of his lower left leg, and bites it off! He does survive and as a successful merchant commissioned Copley to commemorate this scary moment from earlier in his life that he survived. As a bonus, take a look at the shark, can you tell Copley had never seen one in real life, not even a picture??

Hope you have fun exploring the galleries and finding other ways to make the art come alive.

Photos courtesy of the National Gallery of Art.

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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