How the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden Encourages Children to Lead Museum Tours.

In the May meeting of Museum Mindshare, our community gathered to share creative engagement projects that we were proud to have created for museum audiences. You can read a summary of major themes we discussed here. This month, we will feature short reflections from some of our members about their favorite past projects. We hope they will serve as inspiration for museum professionals to continue doing amazing work for your communities.

A large group of people observes two colorful  paintings from a safe distance while two young girls standing in front of the artworks talk to the group. Experience Developer Fabiola R. Delgado is sitting on the floor next to the girls.
Photo by Ash Llanes (@seldom_followed)

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Hirshhorn Kids Tour

Written by Fabiola R. Delgado,

Can you imagine taking an art tour, in which the theme, topics, selected artworks, and in-gallery guidance were all led by children? The Hirshhorn Museum can. They’ve hosted them!

Let’s face it, art museums can be a little (A LOT-tle!) intimidating for many people; they’re generally quiet, minimalist, cold, imposing, full of exclusive art world jargon, and most notably, you can’t touch the art. Every one of these elements we wouldn’t immediately support does appeal to one important museum audience: children.

A young boy raises his hand to offer his comments, actively participating in a kid-led public tour.
Photo by Ash Llanes (@seldom_followed)

When it comes to engaging children, museum education departments make the on-site, and increasingly the off-site experience accessible and approachable for our youngest visitors and their caregivers. Responsible for interpreting, communicating and designing enlightenment opportunities for the public, educators know the purpose of education is learning, not teaching. Among museum educators there’s a common purpose: to share authority by not merely allowing, but inviting more people to interact profoundly with their collections. To that end they develop innovative ways of exploring art in these historically adult spaces, recognizing the importance of learning, and leading visionary projects aimed to serve their youngest visitors (and their adults).

The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Smithsonian’s national museum of modern art, is situated on the National Mall in Washington DC. Their mission is to connect the largest possible audiences with the art, artists and ideas of the moment, and family audiences have, since 2015 become increasingly important, thanks to the ingenuity of the Public Programs and Education departments. From making simple spatial adjustments that anticipate family’s needs (clear signage, stroller parking, etc.) to developing programming that centers kids’ experiences, the Hirshhorn museum educators support children’s social and intellectual development. Most importantly: educators make children feel valued by granting them agency, with the aim of potentiating their confidence, creativity, and forming a lasting bond that makes them life-long museum-goers.

A large group of people of mixed ages gathers at the  entrance of a gallery, receiving instructions from two  young girls. The gallery wall text reads “CHARLINE  VON HEYL Snake Eyes”
Photo by Ash Llanes (@seldom_followed)

Their commitment to young visitors allowed team members to imagine new pathways for connection. Recognizing the success of peer-to-peer education, I applied this classroom concept to the museum, where despite its novelty, it proved successful. The Education team invited some of their youngest recurring visitors and public program users to explore the museum galleries without any specific plan or prompt. Instead, the kids (ages 3, 5, 6, and 8) walked at their own pace, stopping whenever and wherever they wanted to, observing carefully, and making their own judgments about the artworks. The role of the adults in this setting was simply to accompany, support, and encourage their creative thinking, by asking kids questions, rather than correcting or lecturing them. Listening, while staying open-minded, is a powerful learning tool, and children’s unique perspectives often highlight features of works of art that adults can easily miss.

For the next 4 weeks, the kids were tasked with selecting the artworks on display they wanted to share with visitors on a public tour, and with the assistance of educators, develop their own vision. They performed research on each work and artist to identify and study connections between the pieces and arrange a highlights tour route. They also collaborated with multiple museum staff (from program managers to security guards) as well as their fellow guides, to ensure the success of their public presentations, and thus, culminating their mini fellowships.

One of these tours was led by two sisters, ages 3 and 5, who chose to lead together and talk about the works of German abstract painter, Charline von Heyl. Dressed in all-black attire--as it is fashion for gallery guides--and issued headset microphones and special badges, they led visitors through the museum and presented the artist’s body of work while playfully interacting with guests through games and physical movements as strategies for focus and spatial awareness.

Two young girls carrying portable microphones stand  next to an artwork and talk about it to a group of  people. The group is out of the frame.
Photo by Ash Llanes (@seldom_followed)

An astounding total of 81 guests, 36 of them under the age of 6, took the 35-minute tour where they posed as the shapes they saw on the canvases, played memory games in which they’d observe the work for a few seconds then close their eyes and describe it back to the group, and even tried to guess the artworks’ titles; Von Heyl’s 2005 painting “Lying Eyes” was candidly renamed “Raspberry Pink.” And you know what? We’re glad to report that no art was touched! Didactic exercises and clear trust in our guests offers the youngest ones a chance to learn about museum etiquette and invites them to comfortably participate, especially when the instructions come from a peer.

Imagine what we could learn if we share expertise with our visitors, even the youngest!

Two young girls stand in front of large colorful paintings by artist Charline von Heyl. They are smiling  and their arms are open, showcasing the artworks on either side.
Photo by Fabiola R. Delgado

Decades of discussions about the role and purpose of museums in society, and particularly, the disparity in art museums between who’s considered an expert and who’s not, is reason for organizations to reevaluate strategies to engage meaningfully with the communities they serve, and even, to expand the notion of who it is that they are serving. Curators will continue to offer their scholarly knowledge and academic interplay of the collections they pursue, but kids may enrich our understanding of art, and enlighten with their perspectives what we have yet to see.

Museum Mindshare is a series of virtual programs designed to support the work of museums big and small. Sign up for our newsletter to be notified about upcoming events like our June discussion, Keeping Programs Accessible Post-Reopening.