Because my mother was an art historian, we spent at least part of each weekend prowling European painting collections across New York. I grew up in the West Village and associated uptown with The Met and Frick. To keep me quiet, she concocted all sorts of art games, which I’ve been handing down to my 4.5 year old, Storsh (he thinks of the Louvre and British Museum as playgrounds).

She did such a good job of it that I not only got my degrees in Art History, but when I had Storsh, a premature worry set in over what his relationship to art and museums would be. In his first year of life, I started a company called THATLou, which stood for Treasure Hunt at the Louvre. Now awaiting number two, we’re building THATMuse for museums in London. Our soft launch was generously commissioned by the British Museum, where I hosted a “Friday Late” entitled The Art of Play: A Treasure Hunt Challenge, which took place last week, on 11 September.

“Scour the wall of postcards for their five favourite pieces before setting off to find those paintings”

In my experience, children love museums if you know how to engage them. Here are some of my top games to keep them interested when you visit the painting collections.

The Postcard Game

If you’re travelling and it’s a collection you don’t know well, go to the gift shop before you visit the museum and have your children scour the wall of postcards for their five favourite pieces before setting off to find those paintings.

For older children

Ask them to find the paintings featured on the postcards within the museum by looking at the country/century of the work on the back of the postcard and finding it on the map. This will develop their navigation skills and give them a layout of the space.

For younger children

Have them pose as the subject for a photo with each work and postcard. If they’re in the habit of taking photos with your phone, trade roles with you posing as the silliest character in the painting. They will enjoy looking back at the photos later.

The Category Game

Find a bench in the museum lobby before entering and ask your kids to choose an animal, a type of food and something like grotesque noses (Storsh loves this one) as your categories.

“Giving them a sense of purpose helps stretch their attention – and your visit!”

Write your categories down then see how many of those animals/foods/body parts your children can find throughout the visit. All kids like collecting things, and having them keep count by writing a line every time they find their item is rewarding. And of course, giving them a sense of purpose helps stretch their attention – and your visit!

The Fashion Game

Before leaving the house, go to your wardrobe and ask your children to feel a variety of materials – scratchy wool, smooth silk, heavy satin, luscious velvet, soft fur etc – the breadth depends on the size of your wardrobe…. Choose one material or more and (assuming it’s not an evening gown!) wear it to the museum so the kids can look at the collection from a tactile perspective. Ask them whether they think it looks real.

The Saint Game

Every time I visit a museum with Storsh, we latch onto a saint and their attribute and devote our whole visit to finding that saint in various paintings. At 3, Storsh started out with St George, easily identified for killing the dragon from a horse. Each time we found a St George, Storsh would make the wild hissing sound of the dragon blowing fire. Sometimes I’d get on all fours and neigh wildly like George’s horse. The more vivid the enactment, the easier to remember the story.

“Quick, show me what Salome does?”

Slowly, one per museum visit, I added in St Michael and St Margaret, both dragon killers but without the horse. Then St John the Baptist. The bloodier, the better. I tend to quiz him on site, so that his connection to the painting is clear, “quick, show me what Salome does?” Sometimes Storsh draws his fingers across his throat with quick precision for a good beheading, other times he dances – much to the bemusement of the guards.

When you think of the Wild Things of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are you might as well think of Gorgons. As any American who grew up since it was published in 1963 will remember Max was sent to bed without his supper because he roared his terrible roar and gnashed his terrible teeth and screamed his terrible scream too wildly. A forest grows in his room and he’s transported by sea to where the Wild Things live, but Max cows them easily, and becomes the King of All Wild Things by staring them down, unblinking as he holds their yellow eyes steady. Perhaps because Sendak had a soft side, or perhaps because children’s book publishers wouldn’t have permitted it, but Max doesn’t behead The Wild Things as Perseus did their predecessor, nor does he make the Wild Things as terrifying as Gorgons. He couldn’t have.

The very word Gorgon means Dreadful or Terrible in Greek.  They were popular in Greek mythology – if you looked them in the eye you’d turn to stone. Perseus famously outsmarted the most famous of the Gorgons, Medusa, by looking at her in the reflection of his shield, and then beheading her serpent-haired head. Sadly for her, Medusa was not immortal as her two Gorgon sisters Stheno and Euryale were.  They were said to be the daughters of the sea God Phorcys and his sister-wife Ceto (a sea monster).

Red-figured cup by Douris, 480-470 BC, Cerveteri, Etruria now in the Vatican Museum. The python is regurgitating Jason (gross, eh?!?), the Golden Fleece hangs from a branch while Athena looks on with her aegis bearing the Gorgon and helmet with winged lioness,

Often they were depicted as having fangs and skin of a serpent, and hair made of poisonous snakes.  Sometimes they had wings of gold, brazen claws, tusks of a boar.  Lionesses and sphinxes are often associated with them, and generally they were used in architecture to protect the building – for instance temples protecting the oldest of oracles (the oldest stone pediment in Greece, dated from 600 BC, is from the Temple of Artemis at Corfu and what is in the primary location, smack dab in the middle of the pediment? A Dreadful Gorgon of course).

Disk Fibula Gorgoneion Bronze with repoussé decoration, Boeotian production under Corinthian influence, second half of the 6th century BC. From Asia Minor, at the Louvre

So why do I linger on Gorgons? Perhaps because, apart from protecting temples and installed protectively in architecture, Gorgons frequently appear in Greek pottery….  Greek Pots could very well figure in a good Food and Wine THATMuse. Likewise Gorgons would be prime suspects for a Bestiary THATLou, which remains unscheduled as such but is bound to pop up sooner or later. For instance this Gorgon Pot found in the Sully wing would be a great cross-purpose pot for both the Food + Wine THATLou as well as a Bestiary hunt, no?

Gorgon Painter Dinos, taken from Google Images

What makes it so special is that it is one of the first pots to have a continuous narration (where one piece of art depicts the story at different stages) of Perseus’s story, where he’s running from Medusa’s Gorgon sisters (as seen below). The pot scene is so famous that history named the painter the Gorgon Painter, though he of course did many other pots in the 6th century BC.

Gorgon Painter Dinos, 580 BC, taken from Wikipedia

More on all these topics – Gorgons, Food+ Wine THATLou, Bestiary, Greek Pots – soon. For now I’ll leave you with a hyperlink to Maurice Sendak’s obituary in the NY Times from this past May.