Israeli Museums Are Trying to Win Over a (Much) Younger Audience

Museum directors explain how to make art attractive to children with a variety of shows for summer viewing

Kids at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem.
Amir Ronen

“I think that a lot of adults don’t go to museums because their childhood experience was mainly ‘Shhh….’”, says Naama Cohen, a designer who often takes her three young children to museums and art galleries. “The guards in the exhibition rooms always have this ‘oy vey’ look,” she adds, and recalls something that happened in the Beit Meirov Gallery in Holon during a design exhibition. “In Gil Riva’s exhibit there was a huge pouffe and a million toys. At the entrance you could stick a toy on the wall. We got to an inner room just as it was being organized, and Riva asked my daughter to help him. To this day she asks me when we can go back there. It wasn’t the toys that interested her, but being allowed to touch them instead of being shooed away.”

That anecdote will strike a chord of recognition among many parents who avoid taking their children to museums, and to encyclopedic museums in particular – those that encompass broad subjects, such as Judaism, archaeology or art. For example, the Israel Museum in Jerusalem or the Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv are institutions where quiet is usually required. Still, Israel’s large museums are trying to attract families during the summer vacation by offering a range of activities geared toward the young ones: special exhibitions for children, events for children and teens, a new family center and exhibitions for adults that are accessible to children as well. In recent years there has also been a worldwide trend of large installations aimed at young visitors, such as “Big Bambu,” which was installed in the outside space of the Israel Museum in 2014, or the ice blocs installation at the Tate Modern in London.

“Our Youth Wing is singular; I won’t say there isn’t another like it in the world, but it’s singular,” says Israel Museum director Ido Bruno, who has considerable experience in designing for the young, including the design of exhibitions for children. “It’s a wing that has done something important, beginning back in the 1960s, by juxtaposing works of art with interactive environments. It had an earlier version in the attic of Bezalel [the famous art school in Jerusalem]. Ayala Gordon (who founded the Youth Wing) used to conduct activity groups for children there and created a kind of social museum.”

Kids view a painting at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem.
Amir Ronen

“Youth Wing” is actually a misleading name, Bruno says, because “it’s a place that’s suitable for everyone to visit, from toddlers to old folks.” It’s the wing “through which everyone who can’t connect naturally to museums, finds a way to understand what art is. What archaeology is. Think of a group of children from the periphery who encounter a museum for the first time – it’s a strange concept for them. Think if you’d never heard of the concept of religion – you need someone to mediate it for you. That’s the role of the Youth Wing. We create a window that everyone can connect to. It’s an important task for every society.”

In an article Bruno published in Platforma, a periodical for museum education, he set forth his approach to designing an exhibition for children. The primary differences between children and adults, he argues, lie in the sphere of human engineering. Referring to the Israel Museum’s 2011 exhibition “Life: A User’s Manual,” he noted that “the exhibition’s drawers were adjusted to the height of children of six or seven, and bigger children and adults had to bend over.” There’s also a difference in motor skills and physical abilities, he observes: Until a certain age children aren’t able to shut one eye, so peepholes for small children aren’t useful in exhibitions. A common mistake in designing for children is to create smaller objects. In fact, it should be the opposite: their fine motor skills aren’t sufficiently developed, so larger handles need to be made for them.”

Currently on display in the Israel Museum’s Youth Wing is an exhibition about the Bauhaus School and the fields of study it offered: art, industrial design, graphic design and architecture. As Bruno emphasizes, an exhibition of this sort is not aimed at people who know the subject, but for those who are encountering it for the first time. The lead-in to the exhibition (curators: Eli Bruderman and Noga Eliash-Zalmanovich) is a quote by Johannes Itten, one of the school’s teachers, who defined the institution’s activity as “play, party, work.” At the Bauhaus, the notes to the exhibition explain, “a festive atmosphere was considered central, not only to the mood in the school, but also to the creative process.” Visitors to the exhibition are, accordingly, invited “to play, party and be creative.”

Alongside the interactive items, such as a board game with different shapes and a large model of the school, are works by students and teachers from the Bauhaus movement, like chairs, kitchen utensils, wooden toys and paintings – including paintings by Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee and a chair by Marcel Breuer.

“Creatures of Midsummer Nights” at the Eretz Israel Museum. Primarily an art exhibition.
Inbal Marmari

Midsummer Nights

Another exhibition for children is currently running at the Eretz Israel Museum in Ramat Aviv: “Creatures of Midsummer Nights.” The curator is Yuval Saar and the outsize animals were sculpted by Aarale Ben-Arieh; illustrations by Einat Sarfati accompany the show. There are 30 interactive sculptures of animals up to six meters tall – a peacock, an elephant, a grasshopper, a fish, a snake, a lion, a horse, a crocodile, a goat, a frog, a duck, a praying mantis, a lizard and more. Each animal stands on its own, but their positioning together feels like a combined zoo, amusement park and sculpture garden. “It’s a fusion of an abandoned zoo and a Burning Man festival,” Saar avers.

“Creatures of Midsummer Nights” is “more than another summer exhibition that children need to make noise in,” Saar adds. “We are treating it primarily as an art exhibition and as a spatial installation. When a kid operates the elephant, he doesn’t necessarily get the sound of an elephant – but of a bird. All the sculptures are made of metal and of metal painted red. It’s not raucous and it’s not Disney. We didn’t want it to be childish. It’s not for people who understand art, but it’s also not an amusement park in a museum. You can do something with every animal, but not the most predictable thing.”

A declared ideology

Children at the Bauhaus exhibition at the Israel Museum.  Fun learning.
Eli Posner

This month the Tel Aviv Museum inaugurated the Younes & Soraya Nazarian Family Experiential Center. At its entrance is a large magnetic board on which children can recompose the museum’s exhibits. The center’s main exhibition is “Tangram: Complex Shapes,” featuring “Warm Shadow,” an installation by Shachar (Freddy) Kislev, based on Dani Karavan’s “Monument to the Negev Brigade” outside Be’er Sheva. Kislev has created a soft-sculpture variation on which children can climb, crawl, play and sprawl. The exhibition includes a set of large sponge “cubes” in different geometric shapes wrapped in cloth, enabling constant changing of the space. On the walls and the floor are silhouettes of shapes that can be constructed based on the logic of the Chinese game Tangram, in which different models are formed from seven geometric shapes that fit into a square.

Another item on display in the new center is Micha Ullman’s 1980 work “Mirror.” Almost 40 years ago, Ullman dug a hole in the museum’s floor and in it sculpted two facing chairs. The presence of the work in the family gallery exposes young children to art that is also “suitable” for adults.

Doron Rabina, chief curator of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, says: “The activity in the Family Experiential Center is based on exhibitions on display in the museum, and provides the children with keys for viewing additional things.”

He adds that the new center aims to serve families that visited the museum in the past. Like Bruno, he believes economic considerations do not play a role. “On the contrary: children enter the museum for free. Considerable resources are invested in the youth units based on the notion that education for art is important. The museum is assuming a responsibility that the Education Ministry has in many senses discarded. We invest in education out of a declared ideology, according to which it’s our responsibility to raise the audience of future consumers of art.”

Interactive exhibit at the Design Museum Holon.  Mediating culture to children.
Elad Sarig

What do you say to parents whose children don’t like museums?

Rabina: “The center is experiential for the whole family. We created a platform for activity and a shared experience for parents and children alike, where the potential exists for channels of communication between parents and children that you don’t have in other areas of life.”

Sharing the space

Due to its small size, the curators at the Design Museum Holon need to be more sophisticated. “We want children as visitors in the museum and we take them into account in the summer exhibitions,” the chief curator, Maya Dvash, explains. “The exhibitions aren’t for children, but they are suitable for children who can read. The exhibits are relatively interactive, and the texts are readable and placed low, so a child can read them. If a toddler comes to the museum, it is the parent’s responsibility to mediate the exhibition for him. A museum presents an excellent opportunity to mediate culture to children.”

Currently on display in the museum is “The Conversation Show,” an exhibition that consists of five sections, each designed by a different duo. For example, by using the swing that’s part of “Reciprocal Syntax,” a work by the Amsterdam-based BCXSY cooperative, the visitor can create changes in the surrounding video installation; and in the hall of mirrors installation designed by the New York studio Snarkitecture, in cooperation with the radical Italian design company Gufram, children can go through walls in which holes are carved.

Playing with soft sculpture at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.
Meged Gozani

Does the child need to adjust to the conventional behavior expected in a museum, or should the museum adjust itself to children? According to Naama Cohen, the designer, young children enjoy exhibitions that aren’t necessarily earmarked for them. “The exhibition by the designer David Tartakover at the Tel Aviv Museum entranced my daughter,” she says. “She also connected with the sound exhibition at the Design Museum Holon, which was interactive in part. I don’t think it’s necessary to make the messages shallow and superficial, but to think about how they are experienced in different modes. Museums need to satisfy the presence of children and to understand that the earlier they get into their lives and offer them a positive experience, the more they will want to come back.”