Kids Need Art To Understand History

A lot of times when people think of art they think of strange abstract paintings that are difficult to understand, or marble statues depicting ancient gods and goddesses. But do you ever look at art as a link to our past?

One Saturday my husband took our little family out to our local art museum. Being a new mother, I was more than a little nervous. I was afraid when I rolled in a stroller carrying a bottle and an infant that we would be promptly asked to leave. But I was relieve to find not only did they allow us in, we were instructed on the easiest paths to navigate with a stroller and every door in the museum was held open for us.

We were there to see the daguerreotypes, an early form of photography from the mid-nineteenth century. I enjoyed being able sneak a peak at life in the 1840 & 1850s. Things like circus performers and rich children photographed with their nannies. As they became more popular, some photographers would even create lighthearted daguerreotypes of poker games or dentist visits.

But the daguerreotypes that made the deepest impact on me were of mothers holding their babies or small children that had passed. In an age where we can snap a selfie with our cell phone, we forget that at one time in our nation’s past, having an image of your child was very costly. This was the only time that many of these children would be photographed. I got choked up looking at the image of a mother holding the lifeless body of her daughter, and imagining myself in her place. Then I thought about all the photographs that were taken of my own daughter before she even left the hospital, and I felt incredibly blessed.

But that was quickly disrupted by a group that had come up behind us. As someone was trying to explain to this group of adults the meaning behind these daguerreotypes, I was disgusted to hear comments such as: “Gross!” “Why would anyone want a picture of a dead baby!?!” “I wouldn’t want one of those!”

I was ashamed that my (then), 2 month old daughter sitting quietly in her stroller was better behaved than this group of adults, who should have known better. Did they not realize that these were pictures of real mothers, with real children? How could they look at these images and not have their hearts break with the grief that these families must have experienced?

On our way home that evening I thought about why my reaction at the art museum was so different than that of the group behind us. I thought about how growing up my parents had taken me to cowboy museums, art museums, and war memorials. My parents didn’t hide history from me until I was “old enough to understand”. They took me at a very early age so that as I grew I would understand. I saw paintings of WWII airplanes, statues of cowboys and their horses, and photographs of settlers in front of their sod shanties.

Children need art because they are young and curious. There is so much for them to learn about the past by looking at paintings, statues, photographs, pottery. . . they just need someone to take them and answer their questions.

I encourage anyone who has children, young or old, take them to see art. Visit an art museum, a history museum, or even murals painted on the sides of buildings. Then step back as they take it all in, and prepare for the discussion that is sure to follow.