What Makes a Good Museum for Young Audiences: The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden



Sometime back in the spring the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden closed a large part of its galleries to the public and the reverberations could be heard throughout SEEC. The Hirshhorn is hands-down one of our favorite stops along the National Mall. Thankfully, their second and third floors reopened this past week and they do not disappoint (more on that below).
The conversation among our teachers got me thinking: Why is the Hirshhorn such a favorite with our educators? I placed an idea web in each of our teacher lounges and asked them: Why do you love teaching at the Hirshhorn? What I learned in a nutshell: engaging collections + ideal layout = a great early childhood experience.


SEEC’s teachers are, without a doubt, drawn to the modern and contemporary collection. One educator noted; “…so open ended.” Her comment encapsulates our approach to teaching at SEEC. Whether it be through play, engagement, or lessons/curricula, our teachers provide students with the chance to inquire, investigate and explore their own interests. Similarly, the Hirshhorn’s collections offer children (really, all visitors) works of art that are open to interpretation. Teachers feel comfortable using such artworks because their meanings are layered and can be adapted to a variety of themes that resonate with young children.



Of equal importance to our educators was that many of their exhibitions explore

Two-year olds visiting Gravity's Edge Exhibit.

Two-year olds visiting Gravity’s Edge Exhibit.

broad concepts. For example, in an exhibition like Gravity’s Edge, where gravity was a determining factor in the works on display, students were able to see multiple examples of a single idea and we know that children, and young children especially, benefit from such repeated exposures. Similarly, the Ai Weiwei zodiac animals fountain was a huge hit with our students. While the animals were not the work’s main focus, it was an exhibition that engaged our students and offered them a portal to learning more about the piece itself.


Pre-K family workshop in front of Nick Cave’s Soundsuit.

Pre-K family workshop in front of Nick Cave's Soundsuit.

Pre-K family workshop in front of Nick Cave’s Soundsuit.

Our educators also appreciate that the collections demonstrate a unique and varied approach to materials. The introduction of new materials helps children think about things from new perspectives and activates their imagination. A great example is Nick Cave’s Soundsuit, which is currently on display. Cave’s use of unorthodox materials is an attention grabber that uses objects familiar to young children. It also encourages young children to open their minds and be creative.
Varied materials can also be beneficial to the young learner because they appeal to more than just the sense of sight. A few years ago, Suprasensorial: Experiments in Light, Color and Space captivated the whole school because it was just that – suprasensorial. Young children learn better when all of their senses are engaged. Children reacted to and interacted with these artworks through sight, sound, touch and smell. Teachers used that space to explore color, light, lines and even swimming.

For young audiences, the layout of a museum or gallery can be almost as important as the lesson. Early childhood educators generally look for large spaces with little distraction and the Hirshhorn has all of that. Their spacious galleries make it easy for our teachers to have a circle and not block other visitors. The floorplan’s circular flow makes it easy and fun to move around. Teachers also commented on the building’s architecture and how its shape and outdoor sculpture appeal visually to our students. The fountain was also high on the list of why the children liked going there. (see our blog on fountains and learning spaces).

Having fun exploring the newly opened galleries.

Having fun exploring the newly opened galleries.

On Thursday, I headed over to see the newly opened galleries and I was not disappointed! This piece entitled The Dangerous Logic of Wooing basically sums up why the Hirshhorn is so appealing to young audiences – playful, imaginative and whimsical. What more could you want?