Mass MoCA and toddlers

I tend to wear many hats. By this, I mean, the roles I play. As a Mom to two toddlers who live in the midst of 30 pianos and oodles of pianists living with us part-time, I was always on the look to expand cultural experiences for the kids. One, in particular, from a dozen years ago, is worth sharing.

One winter morning, our family had taken a little excursion to the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, MA. The boys, Taylor and Austin, were comfy in their strollers and my husband, Dale, and I were happy to push them around to view the paintings so beautifully displayed on the walls. After about 20 minutes, the boys were already getting a little antsy so I came up with a plan: how many horses could they find in all of the artwork we were looking at? Since a very young age, Taylor had a special connection to horses. He was a late bloomer in his language skills but when he was around horses, his arms would wave in sheer excitement as he exclaimed over and over “I love hee-hee’s.”  So, off we went looking for all the hee-hee’s at the museum. Suddenly our horse-seeking game was heartily acknowledged by other museum attendees as well as the guards that paced nonchalantly throughout the exhibits…or so we thought. We were aggressively reprimanded for standing a bit too close to one of the paintings. I think the guard feared that one of our kiddos might be capable of punching a hole in a 18th century masterwork. I get the need to protect but I knew my boys were totally in control and furthermore, that they respect artwork. As an aside, the kids loved that the museum only had one piano and that we could top that, hands down. Learning that it was bought for $1.2 million dollars at auction had no meaning to them.

Steinway Piano at the Clark Art Institute

Steinway Piano at the Clark Art Institute

A couple weeks later, I stumbled upon an exhibit opening up at Mass MoCA that I thought the kids would like. I had waltzed into the main foyer and saw a giant photograph of an insect and knew that the boys would get a kick out of it. On a chilly morning we bundled ourselves into the van and drove the 25 minutes to North Adams, MA. I immediately knew that we were in the right place for the boys. The first exhibit we came upon was outside. It was Natalie Jeremijenko’s “Tree Logic.” Taylor, our not-very-verbal one at age 3.5, promptly stated: “Them’s backwards” but his classic arm movement of excitement caught us all in a moment of wonderment. 

Photo from Mass MoCA website

Photo from Mass MoCA website

We entered the brick building and promptly discovered that the bathrooms were way cool. Industrial sinks, large ducts exposed in the ceilings and everything made out of heavy-duty metal. The boys wondered if the bathrooms were a part of the exhibit! We got our tickets and off we went to explore.

The first room I insisted we visit was a gallery full of gigantic photographs of insect life cycles. On our way in, we almost fell over a sheepdog. I blended this word together because it was as if this animal had been cloned to be half sheep, half dog. A pseudo-genetic project done by a genius hand at taxidermy.

Sheepdog from Mass MoCA website

Sheepdog from Mass MoCA website

After surviving that weirdness, we entered the insect room. Little did I know that it was going to be a scene of massive eating habits: from caterpillars eating tomatoes to the majestic praying mantis, all green in its glory (or is it envy?) The next four or five foot-large photographs, however, showed the female eating its mate’s head! And, from there a frog ate the praying mantis. Needless to say, this was a very gory room and I worried that the kids might be frightened. Glancing at them, they appeared to be rolling with it so off we went to next gallery.

Austin, at age 1.5, was the first to enter. This room was reserved for the largest sculpture ever on display in a museum: the uberorgan. Austin decided to strut his stuff, enjoying the fact that the floor space, three times the size of a football field, had plenty of room to toddle around in. Imagine his complete surprise when from the right, something would bellow and he’d teeter to the left only to be honked at again, all the while a loud drone was being played in the background like a colossal bagpipe. People stopped in their steps to stare, enjoying this tiny kiddo, wobbling about, experiencing the extreme noises generated by the uberorgan ducts of air and balloons suspended from the ceiling and walls. Dale and I were cracking up with complete abandon at this point.

Uberogran on the Mass MoCA website

Uberogran on the Mass MoCA website

The next two galleries were tame in comparison. Sparkly shiny colorful glass prisms were strung from rails and ceilings and an exhibit that was draped in black material was by-passed for another large room. You never knew where the next room or passageway would lead.

We came upon a bare room with bronze pieces scattered all over the floor. Surrounding these large shoe-sized pieces was a 25′ x 25′ wooden fence. The boys took this in and then proceeded to exclaim on the tops of their lungs: “Poop! Poop! Poop!” non-stop. The other people continued to mill about, whispering their own opinions, chuckling as I tried to hush the boys up. You know, it did look like poop and I figured that we’d be hearing next “Where are the hee-hee’s, Mom?”

We went down a long hallway and found a very dark room that was showing a movie. There were two or three benches in the dank cavern. People were going in and out of the space after sitting down for a minute or two. The film appeared to be continuous and it didn’t seem to matter when you entered into the musty-smelling tent-like chamber. We found a seat for the four of us. Immediately Taylor fixated on the film. It was a Rube Goldberg thing where one explosion would happen after another. We watched a tire roll and crash into something followed by rocking items on tables, flour sprinkled everywhere on kitchen counters to utensils and sticks upending ad nauseam. I think the people who joined us in the dark hole enjoyed hearing “what’s going to happen next, what’s going to happen next” ad nauseam, too. We had to have been in that room for over 45 minutes! Finally, a suggestion to grab an ice cream cone enticed Taylor out of his trance and off we marched to our van and a treat for our bellies.

Here’s a more contemporary spin on a Rube Goldberg project:

People, especially gallery-goers, might scoff at children darting about fine, contemporary, classic, antique, over-sized, weird artwork, but, I, for one, know that my two boys loved the odd displays of unique art at Mass MoCA. Their impressionable brains and eyes feasted on things they won’t ever forget. Just ask them. Bravo to Mass MoCA for being so kid-friendly.

Here’s Taylor and Austin, a few years older, enjoying yet another setting. A cave, not a dank and dark movie cavern.

Taylor and Austin, preteens

Taylor and Austin, preteens

So, don’t be a couch potato or in our case, only play the piano, for your cultural fix. Get out there with your kids and enjoy. They’ll find their own way of appreciating what they’re seeing.

Couch piano or couch potato?!

Couch piano or couch potato?!

About Polly van der Linde

Pianist, teacher, director of International Piano Camps in VT, for adults and children of all levels of ability
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5 Responses to Mass MoCA and toddlers

  1. pianolearner says:

    really interesting post. Thanks for sharing. I love museums and galleries of all types. It’s always great to see the wonder in children’s faces.

  2. Nice story polly. How well I remember. Take the boys again and find out if their views have changed since they were tots!

  3. Great post! Have been taking my kids 2-3x a year since it opened (they’re now teens) and have always felt their curiosity was welcomed and encouraged. Had similar chilly experiences at Sterling & Clark – didn’t really try again until they were teens & it was an exhibit of a specific artist they were interested in.

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