From pacifiers to Picassos

Fathers, I have bad news. When your kid says “dada,” she might not be talking about you. She might b
Young visitors play at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History's "Wegmans Wonderplace" exhibit. (National Museum of American History)
Young visitors play at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History's "Wegmans Wonderplace" exhibit. (National Museum of American History)

Fathers, I have bad news. When your kid says “dada,” she might not be talking about you.

She might be weighing in on early-20th-century art. (See how she flips her sippy cup upside down? Clearly an homage to Marcel Duchamp’s seminal work “Fountain.”)

That’s because a whole lot of babies these days are getting introduced to museums before solid foods.

New amenities geared toward these young visitors are making the introductions easier than ever. Take, for example, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, which unveiled “Wegmans Wonderplace” in December. The first exhibition on the Mall designed for children ages 0 to 6, it features stroller parking, changing tables and nursing pillows. Or there’s the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, best known for housing masterpieces such as Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus.” It just debuted a “Baby Pit Stop,” a secluded spot for nursing and feeding.

Museums have even started inviting infants to exclusive events. At the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, it’s Art Babies, a monthly program that’s so popular that participants have been known to sign up while still in utero.

Newborn New Yorkers (up to 18 months old) can sneak into the Whitney Museum of Art on select Saturdays when it’s closed to other visitors.

Headed to Oregon? The Portland Art Museum’s hour-long Baby Morning tours welcome visitors to admire Japanese screens, Native American baskets and other highlights of its collection — including an Alexander Calder mobile that outshines anything on their cribs.

It’s no mystery why these changes are happening.

“There’s a growing interest in bringing in the next generation,” says Amy Gray, manager of community and tour programs for the Portland Art Museum. “Museums have to be relevant and tap into communities in a different way.”

Targeting the diaper set potentially jump-starts habits that can last a lifetime.

“Use us as part of your routine,” urges Elizabeth Ann Macgregor, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia. The Sydney institution has been catering to families for nearly a decade; since its pioneering baby-tour program launched in 2007, more than 1,600 people have participated. What Macgregor hopes they’ve learned is that museums are much more kid-friendly than they often get credit for. Visitors can customize their experience based on mood, nap schedules and snack cravings: “You can drop in and drop out. You can go to the cafe.”

You — and your offspring — also can learn something. There’s no way a school field trip can match the educational benefits that come from years of informal interactions, Macgregor says.

Starting ’em as young as possible is even backed by scientific research. That’s the basis for the Toledo Museum of Art’s baby tours, which always start near its massive ceramic mural by Henri Matisse. “It’s filled with vibrant colors — blues, yellows, greens — wild flowers, organic leaves and a large face of the god Apollo, done in a simple, almost stick-figure style,” says Michael Deetsch, director of education and engagement.

In other words, there’s plenty of visual stimulation.

His predecessor, Kathy Danko-McGhee, who studies the effects of art on baby brain development, created the tours to encourage adults to discuss hues and shapes, which helps babies build an early bank of vocabulary. “Just because a child can’t talk back to you doesn’t mean they’re not absorbing so much,” Deetsch adds.

And, of course, there’s another major reason to bring babies to museums: parental sanity.

I was utterly unaware of this trend when my daughter, Celeste, was born in February 2015. All I knew was that I was desperate to get out of the house. So when a friend mentioned a weekly baby program at the U.S. Botanic Garden — a 15-minute walk from my place on Capitol Hill — I made it there as soon as possible.

Stepping into the glass-roofed structure on the Mall, I couldn’t have imagined a warmer welcome for the two of us — and not just because the temperature was a good 40 degrees warmer than outside. Smiling staff members directed us to a room off the main lobby. I spotted a table, chairs and a row of parked strollers along with their sleep-deprived owners.

That’s where I met Marjorie, a petite woman I pegged immediately as someone’s grandmother. Turns out I was right — only her grandkids live far, far away, which is why she volunteers here. She handed me a name-tag pin adorned with a pressed purple flower and encouraged me to do whatever I needed to get comfortable.

So I peeked inside my coat for the billionth time to check if Celeste was still snoozing, and breathing. The program is called Snugglers, a cute way of reinforcing that the babies must be in wraps, slings or carriers, which allows a large group to maneuver the garden’s tight paths. I was still adjusting to the notion of wearing another human being, but seeing Celeste’s tiny mouth pucker put me at ease.

The topic of this morning’s tour, Marjorie explained, was plant names. She kicked things off by asking the participants to share how they picked their babies’ names. The answer I won’t forget: One mom said she and her husband had gone gorilla trekking in Africa with a guide named Everest, so that’s what they decided to call their son.

Then we filed into the greenery, stopping to admire brightly colored blossoms, sniff herbs and learn a few things. That ball-shaped cactus, Marjorie pointed out, is known as the “mother-in-law’s cushion.”

When Celeste eventually perked up — and piped up — I felt a flash of embarrassment and tried to hush her with a reassuring bounce. But I quickly realized that no one cared. At least half of the women on the tour (and the one dad) were employing the same technique.

About 45 minutes later, as every baby seemed to decide it was snack time, we returned to the reserved room. While the kids hung out under a rainbow of nursing covers, conversation turned to brands of socks that wouldn’t fall off and where we might grab lunch nearby together. It was the sort of thing I wished I could do every day.

That vision is shared by Lee Coykendall, the garden’s children’s education specialist who started Snugglers three years ago. The seed for the program was planted during her job interview, when she was asked how early that education can begin. “I said from birth,” she recalls, and she now imagines similar programs sprouting up around the Mall. She would love to see parents be able to join a baby tour Monday through Friday, each with different subject matter. “Where we think of smelling cinnamon or eucalyptus, you could make it about shapes,” she suggests.

The way things are going, that schedule might be a reality by the time Everest has a sibling.

In the meantime, it’s pretty easy for Washington parents to fashion their own baby museum itinerary. After gaining confidence through repeat Snugglers visits — it’s a series of six tours, and I faithfully attended all of them — Celeste and I took on new adventures.

I gazed out the windows of the Hirshhorn’s Lerner Room while nursing her on the comfy black couch. She napped as a friend and I admired the work and wide hallways (great for strollers!) in the National Portrait Gallery. We shared some of our first giggles together as she rolled around in the grass on the stately grounds of Dumbarton Oaks in Georgetown.

As her first birthday approached last month, I realized two things: I’d spent more time in museums this year than ever before. And it’s probably time to start researching toddler programs.

Categories: Life and Arts

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