Five Questions We Have about Visiting Art Museums

By Paulette Beete
painting of a well-dressed woman of color working at a sewing machine

Alma Sewing by Francis Hyman Criss, oil on canvas, c. 1935. High Museum of Art, Atlanta, Georgia, purchase with funds from the Fine Arts Collectors, Mr. and Mrs. Henry Schwob, the Director's Circle, Mr. and Mrs. John L. Huber, High Museum of Art Enhancement Fund, Stephen and Linda Sessler, the J.J. Haverty Fund, and through prior acquisitions

While art museums can be wonderful places for sparking our imaginations, they can also be, well, a little intimidating. For one thing, it’s sometimes hard to see them as places of fun when you think you’re going to spend most of the time telling your kids, “No, don’t touch that!” And then, of course, sometimes they can seem so jam-packed with art, it can be hard to figure out where to start. And what if you have really little kids who are much more interested in Peppa Pig than they are in Picasso?

We went to the experts at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery (NPG) to find out their best tips for making the art museum or two (or three or four!) on your family’s summer itinerary fun for everyone. Here’s a special museum-themed “Five Questions” featuring NPG Curator of Painting and Sculpture Dorothy Moss and Youth and Family Programs Coordinator Beth Evans who answered our questions on everything from what do first to what to do if you just don’t like the art you’re seeing?


According to Beth Evans, the first thing to do when approaching a work of art is just to stop and look. She advised, “Something that everyone, young and old, should do is just take time to look at the whole [artwork] and then highlight what stands out to them. What clues has the artist given us? There’s always something and if you really look at the portrait the story unfolds.”

Of course, kids might not see things exactly the same way adults do. What do you do if your little one looks at a portrait of George Washington, for example, and says our first president’s a ballerina? Evans says that’s just fine! “In terms of their experience with the portrait, that’s still very relevant and very accurate. You can ask them what they see that makes them think of a ballerina. Maybe it’s because he’s standing with his feet in a certain position or he has his hand out. That’s still their engagement with it to notice his pose,” she said.

Dorothy Moss added that the more you look, taking in the range of visual elements the artist has included in the work, you can find even more questions to ask to help unravel the story that’s being told in the portrait. For example, looking at the work Alma Sewing by Francis Hyman Criss, Moss noted, “I think it’s interesting that it’s also a self-portrait of the artist. If you look closely, you find an image of the artist making the portrait, and that leads me to ask why he would put himself in this image of a seamstress, and is [the painting] really about him or is it about her? Or is there a relationship there, and what he’s trying to convey is that dynamic between the two of them?”

Evans added that she always notices the colors, or palette, of the artwork first. “Everybody has their thing that they love. I love color in art.” She noted that in Alma Sewing “the artist is really taking advantage of all of the different fabrics in Alma’s studio to create a really beautiful scene, and which also makes me think of the other thing that I love, which is the way that she is painted. She’s a worker, but there’s this element of nobility to her, and that goes back to artistic choice. She has pearl earrings, her hair is impeccable. She’s wearing this really beautiful, bright, red sweater. So that makes me think the artist took time to portray her in a really, really sympathetic and positive light.”


Both of our experts agree that there’s no right or wrong when deciding which artwork to look at first. Moss said, “I don’t think there’s necessarily a wrong place to start. If an exhibition is organized chronologically, it helps organize the ideas for visitors so that you can follow a theme through time. But if you are drawn to something, it’s okay to go to that object and spend time with it.” She added that you also don’t have to visit every work in the exhibit. “Maybe [looking at that first piece that attracted you is] all you want to do, because you had some kind of profound experience with that object and that’s enough. No one should feel there’s a prescribed way to visit a museum or an exhibit.”

Moss suggested an interesting way to look at an exhibit is to look at the objects placed at the beginning and the ending of the exhibit. You can then think about, she said, “How are these objects different? What has happened between these two objects that makes you think about the theme of work?”

Evans added that paying attention to where a kid’s eyes go first can be a great starting point for discussion. “If a child instantly gravitates toward one particular work of art, then that’s a great springboard for the parents to then say, ‘Well, why were you drawn to this? What do you notice? What stands out to you? What do you think is going on here?’” she explained.


Evans underscored that it’s quite alright not to like a work of art. She said, “I always like to explain to people that it’s like when you’re listening to the radio. You’re not going to like every song on the radio, but once you know what you like and what you don’t like, then you just go to the songs and the station that you do. So when you’re in a museum and you see something you don’t like, that’s totally fine.”

She does, however, think it’s just as useful to think about why you don’t like a work as it is to think about what you do like. She explained, “Maybe it’s confusing, or the person’s face scares you or the colors don’t grab you like you wish they would. But it’s totally normal. You’re not going to like every work of art. That’s totally valid. I think the important thing is then to just figure out what about it you don’t like, so then you can figure out what it is that you do like about art. There’s always going to be something for everyone. No one that I’ve ever experienced in this museum has ever just not liked anything. There’s just always something that’s going to catch them.”

Moss agreed with Evans that it could be fruitful to try and figure out why you don’t like a particular work of art. “I think it’s important to at least articulate why you don’t like it, because it may lead you somewhere unexpected,” she emphasized.


Moss’s pick for the most important thing to know about looking at art is, “It takes time.”

Or as Evans put it, “Slow down!”

Borrowing an idea from social media, Moss suggested asking yourself (or your kids), “What is the picture, if you could post one thing, that you would want to show of your experience?” She added, “Maybe that will get you thinking, ‘Oh, I need to be thoughtful about what I’m seeing and really zoom in on the object that’s really speaking to me,’ and also really thinking about why.”

Moss also added that she wants museum visitors to, “own the experience. Don’t feel intimidated. Don’t feel like you’re not smart if you don’t like something. Bring your experiences to bear on what you see and have fun and walk away with something new in your mind.”

Evans agreed wholeheartedly that the key to having an enjoyable experience is being okay with liking whatever you like at the museum and letting your kids know whatever they like or don’t like is fine, too. “I mean, it’s a cliché, but there really is something for everyone at all museums. I have two one-year-olds, and anytime I bring them I’m always surprised by what they love. Sometimes it’s like a work of art that they are just mesmerized by and sometimes it’s like the light fixtures in the ceiling,” she said.


To continue the conversation sparked by your museums visit, Evans suggests looking for books or information online about artists you discovered at the museum. You can also look up information about people who were featured in some of the artworks you saw. Evans affirmed, “You don’t want that spirit to die. You want it to keep going because that’s part of the learning process.”

You can also, according to Moss, extend your experience by telling a friend and visiting other museums. She suggested, “If you can return, bring friends. If you can’t return, if you’ve gone back home to a local museum, go to that local museum and find a connection to something you saw. Just continue the excitement that you felt here wherever you are next, and share it.”

Find a list of museums across the country participating in Blue Star Museums this summer here.