A few weeks ago, the National Gallery of Art announced that it was going to suspend its docent-led school tours for a year, while it re-evaluated its educational programs. The museum wisely decided to change its mind on this rash decision and continue tours while it revamped its education program, as reported last week by Jacqueline Trescott (Gallery's School Tours to Continue: Art Museum Officials Apologize to Docents, May 12) in the Washington Post. Last year, 34,000 students were guided through the museum by docents.
What a relief! Kids should be going to museums, and to the National Gallery above all. Continuing the cultural formation of my three-year-old (after the Kinderkonzert we attended two weeks ago), I took Mini-Critic to the Gilbert Stuart Family Weekend at the NGA yesterday. We took in the art and the music, and he enjoyed some of the activities designed for kids, although at only 3, he did not like some of them. Under the rotunda, there are tables set up where the kids can make either a wig or bonnet à la 18th century, from paper and ribbon. Mini-Critic politely assisted me in the creation of one of these wigs. However, his dignity would not permit him to don it himself, although he did make me wear it from time to time.
We went first to the East Garden Court, where David and Ginger Hildebrand were giving a concert on the theme of Musical Instruments in Colonial Culture. This involved them playing a small pile of interesting instruments, which Mini-Critic enjoyed much more than the explanations about them. He liked the violin (of course), the recorder, and the hammered dulcimer. We were there first thing in the morning, which was perfect because it meant that the crowds were not overwhelming and we were able to see the things we wanted to see and then leave when interest waned. It was also good for me to get Mini-Critic home in time for his afternoon nap.
There are also activities to draw you into the Gilbert Stuart exhibit, including a performance by William Sommerfield of Philadelphia's American Historical Theatre, who was impersonating President Washington in Gallery 77. If you take the little booklet for kids, with little games and questions to answer as you look at the paintings, you will receive a nice poster of one of Stuart's portraits of George Washington. Since Mini-Critic was so scared by the Washington impersonator that we had to leave the room, I doubt we will be hanging that poster in his room any time soon.
From our post-museum assessment, I can report that Mini-Critic's favorite event was the instrument demonstration in the West Garden Court. We saw the head of the National Gallery's Music Department, a bewigged and costumed Stephen Ackert (who plans the weekly free concert series we review regularly at Ionarts), explain and play on the Snetzler organ, with the help of a boy from the audience who pumped the billows with foot pedal. I heard this instrument in concert twice in recent weeks (concerts that I reviewed here and here):
This organ was built in London in 1761 and brought to the New York Colony in 1763. The man who imported it, one Dr. Samuel Bard, became surgeon to President George Washington, whose portrait Gilbert Stuart was called from England to paint. There may be drawbacks to living in Washington, but the fact that this sort of cultural nexus is not uncommon here is not one of them. This John Snetzler chamber organ has been loaned for the Gilbert Stuart concerts by the National Museum of American History. The thing is worth going to the National Gallery just to hear it played. It is about 7 feet tall and looks like a china cabinet, except that when you open the glass doors you see pipes and the top drawer opens out to reveal a small keyboard of a little over three octaves.As much as Mini-Critic was fascinated by the organ, he was really taken with the glass armonica played by Dean Shostak. He went back several times to look at it (as shown here), ultimately prompting Mr. Shostak to come over to speak to us, not to give Mini-Critic an impromptu demonstration (which is what I was hoping he would do) but to ask us to step back a few steps from his very fragile glass instrument (which I completely understand).
The Gilbert Stuart Family Weekend continues at the National Gallery today, in the West Building from 11 am to 6 pm.