Raising Richmond: VMFA the hard way

An art museum is almost the opposite of a children’s museum: there’s no touching, no talking, and nothing to ride. That doesn’t mean it can’t be kid-friendly.

Between this column, past 5 Things for Families, social media, and running through the streets yelling recommendations, I’ve mentioned many times how happy I am with our VMFA membership.1

My husband and I became members after our daughter was born. When we had an infant, VMFA was a relaxing and enjoyable way to spend time on weekends. While it’s more challenging now to take her to the museum than back in the baby-carrier days when she would fall asleep immediately, it’s worth going at all stages of her life–even if she’s not always into it. It’s easy to keep our kid engaged for a short visit. She’s good at being quiet and not touching artwork. It helps that the museum is peppered with things that fascinate her, like the elevators and stairs, and, occasionally, art. We also save the biggest draw for her to end each visit, which is a walk outside to see the fish in the sculpture garden’s pond.

However, I sometimes wish we had a babysitter for the special exhibits.2 I don’t know why those push her to the limits more than the permanent collections. She slept through the first ones that we took her to. I had to skip the introductory film and breeze through Mummy: Secrets of the Tomb when she was a loud, loose early walker. Knowing that she would not be into it at all, my husband and I went alone to go to the Maharaja exhibit and have a drink at Amuse.3 She liked Tom Wesselmann’s Pop Art and Beyond, and afterwards she often mentioned the “woman” paintings. She seemed to like the Posing Beauty in African American Culture exhibit (noted: photos and bright paintings = kids like). I carried her through the Chihuly exhibit while she sort of paid attention but mostly wrote on a new notepad I bought her at the gift shop. I had to go to Hollywood Costumes a second time without her because, other than the superheroes, she wasn’t interested in seeing old clothes, and I wanted to read everything.

When we went to Forbidden City: Imperial Treasures from the Palace Museum, Beijing, the first thing my daughter said when presented with a row of colorful gowns is, “I want to leave.” I ended up carrying a disinterested child, who was also dressed in her Halloween costume, through the exhibit in about 20 minutes, although there were other kids her age who were doing better. She didn’t get disruptive–or not any more disruptive than a normal four-year-old calmly walking around–but I wouldn’t have taken her if I couldn’t pass her off to her dad or another adult so I could look around for a few minutes.

She’s not into the museum like we’re in the museum, but we try hard to engage her when we’re there by pointing out things that are familiar to her or that are especially cool to look at. On a recent visit through the Tapestry Hall to see the Esther Mahlangu mural, we were able to point out her new favorite song topic, Jesus, to her. She was a little scared of that darker-lit, more historic part of the museum. It is kind of creepy, especially when it’s empty. But the modern art is good for a bright, pop-in visit. In the regular exhibits she has searched for a yellow painting that she liked, and when we couldn’t find it, she rationalized that it was probably painted over in white.

Sometimes I think “I wish there was a kid thing where they can touch stuff”, but then I reason that one of the lessons of going to VMFA is to learn to appreciate and experience things that you can’t put your dirty hands on or color. Not everything for kids has to be “kid friendly” in the way that we think. There doesn’t need to be an Art Deco-furnished bounce house or a marble statue to fingerpaint.

I prefer VMFA to “kid-friendly” museums, and I don’t understand why parents are full price at the later–I can’t do anything there. She has plenty of placers where she can be loud, hands-on, climb things, and feed goats,4 but it’s nice to do things that all three of us (and occasional visitors) can enjoy. Our daughter does genuinely seem interested in going to the museum (it helps that we sometimes get a fancy soda and snack at the Best Café). It’s an interesting place. Every time I drive by VMFA it makes me want to visit.

Maybe she’ll be a lifelong museum-goer or art enthusiast. Maybe she’ll remember it as a boring place that we always made her go to. Or maybe she’ll move away from Richmond and just think of VMFA as the strangest aquarium she’s ever been to.

Photo by: Gamma Man

  1. Most of the museum is free, but we get the membership for the paid exhibits. 
  2. Scrolling through the list of past exhibitions gave me the same feeling I get when I look through my Instagram feed. So many memories. I hope everyone saw Mocha Dick and the Elvis photography exhibit. 
  3. Going to VMFA in the evening is a nice, low-key date night. We’ve only done it once, but it felt very fancy without costing us much at all. 
  4. I would like to see less craft beer and more baby goats at local events. 
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Kelly Gerow

Kelly Gerow lives and writes in Richmond. She probably does other stuff in Richmond, too.

Notice: Comments that are not conducive to an interesting and thoughtful conversation may be removed at the editor’s discretion.

  1. Kevin on said:

    There’s always goats at Maymont (with baby ones in the spring!). Their family membership is $60, and includes Nature Center admission and discounts on children’s birthdays and events/programs, including some toddler programs.

  2. Thank you for bringing your daughter to VMFA! You are demonstrating to her the importance of visiting museums and looking at art, which is such a gift to a child.

    And we are here to help.

    The solution will, with your help, be better known to parents: The Teaching Gallery. Located in the Art Education Center, this gallery is hands-on and interactive, and the current exhibition is Beyond the Walls, as in outside the Walls of the Forbidden City in 18th century merchant-class Beijing. Kids and their parents can unroll and view reproduction scrolls, like those featured in Forbidden City and in VMFA’s East Asian collection, or play traditional musical instruments and games. Whether visiting as part of a school group, or a multigenerational family, the Teaching Gallery exhibition offers visitors of all ages a new perspective on China’s imperial past. If you prefer to learn from home, you may visit the Beyond the Walls interactive website:

    Another fun resource for parents and especially as families gather for the holidays are the downloadable Gallery Hunts, which take adults and kids all through VMFA, seeking clues in the art: http://vmfa.museum/visit/plan-ahead/gallery-maps/

    And finally, VMFA has an Educational Resources website. Resources include pre- and post-visit guides, gallery activities, lesson plans, artist videos and more, for educators, home school educators and parents: http://vmfa-resources.org/

    And finally, your knowledge and fondness for VMFA is thrilling. Please bring your daughter to Open Studio Sundays, a free studio event each first Sunday, 1 – 4 p.m. She can make art.

    And let us know if you have other ideas to welcome families and to make VMFA a regular family affair!

  3. Kelly on said:

    @Suzanne: Thanks for all the info! I will look into it. I’ve never participated in any of the supplemental programs.

  4. Mary Ellen Mercer on said:

    Kelly, you and your daughter should try the pre-school art classes with “Miss Lori” Valente. My granddaughter and I have been going since she was about 3. Lori is wonderful with the age group, and older kids, too. Class projects are doable, with 2-3 different kinds of pieces. They read a related book about color or an artist, and visit a related work of art before returning to the studio and making their own. Very cool!

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