Babies and toddlers in a museum? Absolutely, according to the Toledo Museum of Art, where a focus on making art accessible and understandable, under the direction of Brian Kennedy, is drawing crowds of all ages.
In fact, the 113-year-old museum is welcoming younger sets with programs specially designed for them. Babies view themselves, bright colors, shapes and patterns to encourage brain growth and pre-literacy skills. Toddlers are exposed to art via multi-sensory, hands-on experiences.
It’s all part of the museum’s visual literacy emphasis, which also includes training for adults; ProMedica workers have benefited from sessions, said Kennedy, the museum’s president, director and CEO, who spoke Thursday at The University of Findlay’s Mazza Museum.
To be able to “speak visual,” one must be able to take the time and interpret what they’re actually viewing instead of making quick assumptions about it, Kennedy explained. Just like the ability to read critically, the skill increases intellectual capacity.
“Most of our day is spent looking, but we do not engage the process of seeing,” said Kennedy. “We must teach it,” and ideally start doing so at the earliest ages, he said, since much of what we visually absorb is mentally imprinted by age five.
“Ninety percent of what you see right now is not what you’re seeing right now,” said Kennedy. “About nine tenths of it you’ve already seen and are remembering, which is why we’re so culturally formed so early in our lives,” he said.
The Toledo Museum of Art, rather than simply being a repository and display site for exemplary works, is using engagement to educate people about this type of literacy, which involves observing something, seeing it, describing it, analyzing it and, finally, interpreting it. Kennedy says we are all good at doing just that in certain aspects of our lives, such as when we’re gardening or golfing, but not in a comprehensive way that would provide more context and meaning.
Museum workers themselves are practicing what they’re preaching, he said. For instance, if they want to explain something to their colleagues, they are required to draw their idea first. The museum recently hosted the 47th Annual International Association of Visual Literacy Conference. Online, it explains visual literacy at www.vislit.org.
Kennedy thinks that sensory interpretation, especially when it comes to sight, should be added to schools’ curriculum.
“Up to 90 percent of our information is received by our eyes,” he said, yet “becoming aware of our sensory world is something we don’t teach as a course.”
Meanwhile, the Toledo Museum of Art is doing what it can thanks to Kennedy’s enthusiasm, knowledge and strategic risk-taking, all of which are challenging the traditional mindset of what a museum should do and be to better serve all sectors of a diverse public.