Why are art museums intimidating

"There needs to be a reason for looking at artwork that was made a long time ago other than someone says you should look at it.

It has to have meaning for a contemporary viewer -- especially if that viewer is a child."Russell's staff and the installations that they produce encourage kids to talk about what they see as opposed to the artwork itself.

"We're this wonderful, mysterious palace of art," he says. "Our collection, which is made up of more than 2 million works of art, is certainly worthy of children and their curiosity.

"And that's what I try to bring to families."The Met has a mascot -- an ancient Egyptian earthenware hippopotamus named William --yet you won't see it used as a gimmick in the children's handbooks or the museum halls. And I'm out to prove it."He more than does: The Met hosts the most family programs of any museum in our survey (44 are scheduled for March alone), including "Start With Art" (storybook readings and gallery tours for kids under 7) and "Look Again! The Dayton Art Institute is known to locals as "Dayton's living room," a reference to the fact that nearly all of Dayton comes together there.

And within that garden is a magical three-acre area for children dotted with animal sculptures called the Enchanted Woods, open year-round.

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"The education center tries to give families a connection between art and life," says Jean Sousa, director of the center's interpretive exhibitions and family programs.Rather than judge the depth of the collection, we examined family tours, kids' and family classes, educational programs for school groups, staffing, the accessibility of the exhibits to kids, and other features key to a memorable family experience.The Art Institute of Chicago opened its first children's gallery in 1926."Several years ago, our director challenged the entire institution to form a plan to welcome young people," recalls Jane Burrell, assistant vice president of education.

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The result was a refocused Boone Children's Gallery, which features hands-on exploration (kids visiting the just-departed "The Pharaoh's World" installation got to wrap a mummy in linen), and the "Nex Gen" program, which offers free membership to children under 18 (LACMA is the only museum in our survey to do so).

From gallery tours for toddlers to camps for school-age children, even the most high-end art museums have devised wonderful ways to welcome families.

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