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Is the Portland Museum of Art intentionally anti-family?

Thursday the summer jar told us to go to the Portland Museum of Art. I’d put it in the jar because I haven’t been in a few years, and I wanted the kids to see all that art right there in our own town, I thought it might be inspiring, and I thought it might be interesting to compare it to the galleries we went to. Instead I spent the whole time feeling like they wanted us to leave.

First they told me that I couldn’t carry Zuzu in my back in the Ergo. I carry Zuzu on my back everywhere and for a moment I couldn’t even get my mind around how I would bring her around the museum if she wasn’t in the Ergo. When I asked why, the woman at the ticket stand (there must be a more official name for that, but anyway) said that it was because I might not be aware of what was on my back. I get what she meant, I think, that if it were really crowded maybe I’d back into a painting? They did at least provide (flimsy) umbrella strollers, so I strapped Zuzu into one of those to wheel her around. But I will say that it felt all wrong to have her all the way down there in the stroller when I’m so used to her being up on my back.

We went into the first exhibit, a collection of paintings from New England artists’ colonies. Eli was pushing Zuzu in the stroller. Within thirty seconds a docent came over and snidely said, “We ask that one adult hand be on the stroller.” Again, I get it. They don’t want a crazed 3-year-old driving the stroller into a sculpture or something. But I was annoyed because I didn’t want the stroller in the first place, and also because it was a crappy stroller that was like a grocery cart with a bad wheel, and also because the docent said it in a voice that said, “I pity you with your horrid, horrid offspring.”

We decided to go upstairs. I’ve never used the elevator in the museum before. There is absolutely no signage telling you where the elevator is (hidden in a hallway off to the side of the entrance). I wouldn’t have to use the stupid secret elevator if it weren’t for the stroller. Anyway, we finally find the elevator after walking all over the first floor, get in, and there’s a sign that says what’s on each floor, which also says, “Interactive Exhibit for Families!” and tells us where that is. We decide to do that, and make the trek through the museum to the adjacent McLellan Sweat House, which requires us to go through small rooms with a jumbled collection of fragile antiquities and an antique couch that Eli said, “Oh look!” about and was walking toward when a guard hissed, “DON’T TOUCH!” at him, so he turned around. Then we went down a small set of stairs and through a giant heavy door (stupid stroller stupid stroller) to get to an empty room that had a sign on the wall that said, “Interactive Exhibit for Families! In Progress!” Sigh.

Up to the third floor we went (in the secret elevator), where the world’s nicest museum worker let Henry wheel Zuzu in careful circles around a bench while he lovingly teased Eli about what he thought might be behind a door in a mural that was taken from the old Westbrook post office. Love that guy. Totally engaged the kids in the art and didn’t yell at Henry about the fact that he was pushing the stroller without an adult hand on it.

Then we got all excited in the next room, which had lots of fun modern art (Warhol! Claes Oldenburg! Roy Lichtenstein!). We peeked up at the Calder mobile, and in the middle of the room was a salvaged-wood sculpture called Gem by Robert Indiana. “Look!” I said to the boys, gesturing at it. “Where do you think those wheels came from?” and as we were debating wagon vs. wheelbarrow, a docent came over and said, “We have an 18-inch rule, and you’re getting a little close with your pointing there.” Translation: “Don’t be exuberant about the art.” Subtranslation: “Please get your rugrats and leave.” And so we did. The boys could tell that they weren’t wanted. They looked hurt. Maybe I did too.

Look, I get it. I know that the museum is filled with priceless works of art. I know that some children are awful and destructive. I get that you need rules to make sure that the art is protected. That’s fine. And I certainly don’t think that the world needs to cater to my children. I don’t think that they should have handed me a “Portland Museum of Art Scavenger Hunt” pamphlet when I walked in (although, hey, that might have been nice). The whole reason we were there was because it wasn’t the Children’s Museum, and I want my kids to understand that the world is not built for them, and that there are also maybe more interesting things in museums than a display where they can milk a pretend cow.

My issue was really with the extreme condescension. People, this is Portland, Maine. It’s a place where we’re nice to each other. It’s a place of genuine smiles. It’s a place where you work at the museum because you love art, and if you see a mom with some engaged kids on an otherwise dead afternoon, you maybe would mention something interesting about the art, rather than throw your mighty docent muscle around.

So we left. We walked down Congress Street and past Whitney Art Works, with its huge window and giant art, and the boys stood there staring and said, “What’s THAT?” and I said, “Let’s go inside” so we did, Zuzu on my back dammit, and the woman in there smiled a huge enthusiastic smile and said, “Hi!” and let us walk around and look at things and we didn’t even have to pay.

Then we sat in some funny outdoor plastic furniture outside Addo Novo, and no one came out and told us to get off the expensive modern couch. Thank you!

Then we got bread and cookies at Big Sky and the boys ate their cookies at Lady Liberty in Monument Square and watched some jugglers and we felt happy about Portland again.

Until we got back to the car and there was a ticket on the windshield.

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8 Responses to “Is the Portland Museum of Art intentionally anti-family?”

  1. 1
    Clog:

    What a shame. The kids of today are the museum goers of tomorrow. I remember being in the Clark and having my little “backpack” purse over my shoulder and they kept telling me I had to hold it in my hand. I never hold it in my hand and it felt so awkward….I can see this rule as you could whip around and knock a painting. I now just lock my purse in the car.

  2. 2
    Christina:

    Yeah- we encountered this last year at some of the museums when we brought Nora out east. All the guards were very nice about it but it was SO strict at a lot of places.
    I think it totally varies by museum and must be determined by whoever is on the boards that run them. LA county museum of Art is super welcoming to kids and has a HUGE warehouse sized free art area where kids can make anything they want. Too bad Nora has been too young while we’ve lived here to fully appreciate this. (Here are some pics of the kid’s area: http://www.flickr.com/photos/christinasphotoblog/sets/72157620635905442/

    But LA must have specifically thought this out. They actually give everyone under 18 a free membership that includes free entry for one adult with them- which is awesome. But they have a very different collection with a focus on modern art which is obviously less “vulnerable” to strollers and babies in backpacks! (Try knocking down Koons’ “Balloon Dog’!)

    The Getty museum here is much less welcoming. They have a very small “family” area and nowhere to eat that is toddler friendly.

    You should write a letter. The huge recent baby boom in this country means that places need to get with it and be as family friendly as possible. Sounds like they should retrain the guards a bit!

  3. 3
    Julie:

    Wow, I can’t believe that giant kids’ room at the LA County Museum of Art! That’s amazing.

    And, you know, while I’d love for there to be a museum around here with something like that, I don’t even really care if there’s a kid-specific area in the museum. I just want to feel like we’re welcome.

  4. 4
    Christina:

    That’s a really good point- museums shouldn’t have to have a designated kid’s area- just be welcoming. Send them this blog entry and see how they respond!

  5. 5
    emily:

    Amen to that! we’ve had only one snotty docent experience in a gallery downtown, but the rest of nyc, which is SUPPOSED to be snotty, has been remarkably little-kid welcoming. at moma they have a bazillion of those tripptrapp chairs in the cafeteria (it feels funny to say cafeteria when the only serve 9$ penne-with-cheese as kids food, but whatever) and I have blessed them for it a few times now, as meet scott at moma with wylie on some evening is our main “date” experience of the last 3 years. anyway, yay art and get over yourself pma… what you keep with your rules is far less than what you’re losing!

  6. 6
    Lisa van Oosterum:

    Man, we have had this on our radar as a place to visit…I think we will wait a bit. It’s fine that they have those rules…I agree, totally understandable, but no need to have a pole up your arse in the manner that you communicate said rules…jeez.

  7. 7
    Julie:

    Lisa, just do the gallery hopping instead.

  8. 8
    Sarah:

    You need to come to PlayDate at the ICA In Boston! Last Saturday of every month.

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