It was such a treat to be able to take my kids to The Norton Simon Museum for the first time. It is one of my favorite museums in LA, and although not grand in stature the collection is unforgettable as are the gorgeous grounds. We had planned on attending a family/youth event during the visit, which being a fun interactive painting session would normally be a refreshing interlude amid walking the halls; little did I know, they would actually be more interested in going through the exhibition halls because of the engaging audio tour. Aesthetically, the art collection is visually stunning; and being a lover of 19th and 20th Century art in particular, I may have a visual kindred spirit within the late Norton Simon.
The Norton Simon Museum started its history as the Pasadena Art Institute and then the Pasadena Art Museum. Originally founded in 1922, and becoming an incorporation just a couple of years later, the works of art originally consisting of 19th century American and European art were housed in the Reed Mansion in Pasadena. Norton Simon, an industrialist and avid art collector, amassed his collection of over 8,000 works from the 1950s – some of his favorite artists were Rembrandt, Daumier, Gaugin, and Braque. In 1974, the museum and Norton Simon agreed to take over the financial burdens of the institution in return for using the majority of the building to house his massive collection, which are still owned by the Norton Simon Foundation to this day with a no-loans policy. The museum also houses a theater, which plays films throughout each day as well as hosting lectures and performances. Their extensive sculpture gardens are beautifully maintained.
I am an avid audio tour participant, but it will not keep the kids’ interest for long. Noticing that they had a “kids” version of the tour, I gave them each a handheld device, which they loved putting against their ears as it reminded them of phones. Select art pieces - actually a great number of them - had a special purple colored ‘play’ graphic with a separate number indicating that it is a part of the kid friendly tour. They had such fun walking around looking for these particular artworks and expressing toned down jubilation at each find. They found such satisfaction pressing the numbers into the number pad as if to make a “phone call”. There was no doubt that also listening to the animated music coupled with calm storytelling and descriptive words was truly engaging for these 3 and 5 year olds. They would sit and stare at the works for minutes at a time in silence, often finding a bench to sit on their own so they could focus on the audio. This was a real treat for me not only to witness them being so engrossed in learning but most incredibly it also gave me some “alone time” to walk around the hall on my own to take in the works while keeping them at close watch. Any parent of young kids will testify that this is almost a miraculous event!
The garden area was a must visit. I knew that my daughter especially would appreciate the beauty, which she did to the exclamation of “Wow! It’s so beautiful!” the moment we walked through the doors. We had a simple lunch of well-made sandwiches and desserts, and I appreciated the existence of an appetizing kids menu. We weren’t able to wander around the grounds for long, since we were on a time schedule, but we left wanting more of this garden – wanting to come back just to enjoy walking around the pond and the sculptures.
We got to attend a Family event of the day, which was a Panorama Painting session. The group met in the lobby and were split to two. We escorted down towards an outdoor area with tables set up with panoramic watercolor papers, water soluble colored pencils with brushes and water. We were given some simple instruction and encouraged to create our own panoramic worlds. All the participants, both young and old, were clearly having a great time chatting and being creative. Due to the intense southern California heat of the afternoon, my kids were ready to get back inside and continue on their audio tours and were not interested in completing the walking group tour which followed – it was my preference as well. They had been very interested in listening to what the Southeast sculptures were all about since they had noticed some “purple triangles” at some of the plaques while going past earlier. It was amusing hearing them point out the intricate forms that interested them and discussing the “masks” and their funny or scary expressions.
In my opinion, part of the fun of taking young kids to a fine art museum is the unknown and serendipitously discovering elements or activities that work for the family. At almost every museum we have been to, we have stumbled onto something that ends up being a highlight of the trip because of two main reasons: The first being that kids simply know how to have fun in any situation as that is their nature, and the second being that museums are filled with opportunities to educate a curious mind as that is its nature. The Norton Simon was no exception and we are grateful for that.