The off-the-Mall location of the American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery is both a good and bad thing. Good because it’s not as prominent on the tourist radar as, say, the Natural History Museum and National Gallery, thus keeping the crowds at bay. But bad (or, perhaps, “not as good” is a better way of putting it), because they are wonderful museums that are often overlooked by both visitors and locals, since they’re not right on the beaten path.
Indeed, they are worth the detour from the more popular attractions. Not only are they filled with compelling art, including works that even little ones may find appealing, they offer programs especially for kids that engage and encourage them to look at art in new ways.
If I’m in the area with the kids, we almost always pop in to stroll around, usually heading to the third floor of American Art, where interesting sculptures, provocative installations, and brilliant colors tend to capture their interest. The special exhibits are often great, too — we loved The Art of Video Games, and there is currently a fascinating exhibition of works by Nam June Paik, who created the video map that’s part of the permanent collection, that focuses on media in culture.
On a recent visit to the museums, we took advantage of some of their family programs for the first time. (Yes, I almost hate to admit that even though I recommend the programs regularly, we had never actually participated in one.) Portrait Story Days, offered by the National Portrait Gallery every weekend, welcomes guests to drop in to hear a story about a famous American whose portrait is hanging in the museum, then do a craft inspired by the person. Keith Haring was the week’s honoree, so after the reading, we used stencils and a bit of freehand to create our own Haring-esque drawings.
The project didn’t last long, so we picked up a Portrait Discovery Kit, which are available from the Education Center and recommended for kids ages 5 and up. The kit included seek-and-find cards that prompted a little scavenger hunt to locate “sitters” in various paintings, a drawing pad to do some of our own sketching, and worksheets that encouraged kids to write down the emotions they observed in a portrait. Owen was engrossed in the hunt for famous mugs, which led us throughout the gallery to find them. He also enjoyed describing the emotions of subjects in the Hall of Champions, the walls lined with portraits of well-known athletes.
Both Portrait Story Days and Portrait Discovery Kits are offered just about every weekend, usually both Saturday and Sunday. But it’s always a good idea to check the schedule to confirm.
The American Art Museum also offers Art a la Cart almost every Saturday and Sunday afternoon. Four carts throughout the museum provide hands-on activities for kids to explore different kinds of art and spark their creativity. It’s recommended for ages 7-12.
Along with the regular programs, both occasionally present special Family Days that usually correspond with a current event or new exhibit — you can find out about them on the museums’ calendars here and here. Of course, I’ll keep you posted as well.
The National Portrait Gallery and American Art Museum are located at 8th & F Streets NW. They are connected by the lovely Kogod Courtyard, a must-stop on any visit to the venue, where you can enjoy lunch from the cafe on premises or bring food from another eatery nearby, and kids can stomp in the one-inch deep water scrims. Note that hours at these museums are 11:30am – 7pm. Both are open daily, except for Christmas Day, and admission is free.