Here’s the thing. It is five hundred degrees outside. I’m fairly certain the cement foundation of our house is liquefying. Five minutes even in the shade of our backyard at 8 a.m. leaves me fighting the urge to nap, like Dorothy in a field of poppies. There is no way we are going to a park. There is no way we are walking for more than 2 minutes from air conditioned car to air conditioned building, sun hats on, sunscreen applied. Given the situation, what better place to take a 16-month-old than an art museum?
Toddler-approved aspects of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts:
1. Its cavernous interior (great for echoing screams and the pitter-patter of little footsteps on granite floors);
2. Its sturdy hardwood benches, placed purposefully for quiet contemplation (or for climbing on so that one can crawl from one end to the other, making bear noises)
3.The orange bucket chairs in the lobby (they spin!);
4. All the sculptures on beguiling, climb-able pedestals (until one isn’t allowed to climb them);
5. The wooden trains displayed in the gift shop window (each one with a price tag roughly equivalent to a black market kidney);
6. The apple juice from the museum restaurant (24g of sugar per serving!);
7. The fish pond outside, which does not have railings (only for serious thrill-seekers);
8. The lawn care equipment in the sculpture garden;
9. The glass elevator.
The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is a work of art in and of itself. The building underwent a $150 million renovation in 2010, and the new Francis G. McGlothlin Wing houses a three-story atrium that actually caused my son, upon entry, to stand still and crane his neck in wonder. Galleries in this new wing, and in the older structures, include impressive collections ranging from Indian and Himalayan art, to works by American masters, to a collection of jeweled objects by Peter Carl Faberge.
On the day we visited, several temporary exhibits were open, including Gordon Parks: Back to Fort Scott. In the brief moments I spent glancing away from my son as he systematically hunted down every door stopper and bronze-plated electrical outlet in the floor, I saw stunning black and white images depicting everyday life prior to the Civil Rights Movement. Gordon Parks was Life magazine’s first African American photographer. Most of his photographs had subjects engaged in everyday life, and seemingly unaware of the camera lens. But one image in particular caught my eye, that of a stately couple dressed in Sunday finery, looking at the camera straight on. Their steady gaze pierced the camera lens and looked directly at the wide world with accusation, protest, and strength, as if they were ready for the coming fight. This image in particular, and the exhibition as a whole seemed so relevant, depicting a world on the brink of change, in a time when we still seem to be stuck on that brink.
It’s also possible this image stood out because it was on the poster advertising the exhibit, which was free, by the way. Unlike the Kehinde Wiley exhibit, which called to me with its vibrant colors and busy, upholstery-esque backgrounds, but not with the same force as the elevator called to my son. (I feel one way about taking my busy, noisy child through the free galleries, and another way entirely about his toddler-speak amplified in surround sound in a special exhibit people paid to admire.)
Boy, did he like that elevator. It was the first thing he spotted when we entered the atrium, a room with walls of glass at either end and skylights above, allowing us to be washed in natural light without actually going outside. There are two glass elevators in the atrium, a marvel for the toddler mind. It was a delight to watch him stand still, clasp his little hands together, and follow the slow and steady up and down movement. It didn’t hurt that several passengers saw him, smiled, and waved. Needless to say, we spent a good amount of time riding the elevator ourselves, and trying out the various buttons.
After about an hour of elevator riding, step climbing, bench crawling, slow jogging through the museum repeating a mantra of “no touch, no touch,” and other generally irreverent activities, it was time for a snack. Also, I needed a quick distraction from the gift shop, which contained many an expensive and breakable souvenir. The Best Café on the first floor does not cater to toddlers (nor should it), but it does have apple juice, and generous scoops of vanilla bean ice cream from Homestead Creamery, as well as a great selection of alcoholic beverages from Virginia wineries and craft breweries. Although I did not imbibe during this visit, I did visit the museum occasionally for First Friday festivities in 2014 and 2015 B.C. (Before Child), at which time I sampled wine and enjoyed several poetry readings and a performance by an Indian dance troupe.
While we enjoyed our snacks, fighting only a little over who should be in charge of the spoon, I looked out through the glass wall at the waterside terrace and the sculpture garden. The reflecting pool and Dale Chihuly’s blood-colored glass sculpture, Red Reeds, separated us from the garden at large, a grassy expanse that seemed created for a toddler to run wild while being visually stimulated by art and water feature, the latter preferred by my son. I confirmed this fact after we finished eating and cleaned ourselves with one thousand wet wipes under the fierce gaze of a pair of pierced college-aged girls. I restrained myself from hissing, “We recycle at home.” Instead, we bee-lined it outside to admire the fish in the reflection pool, which, as I mentioned, does not have railings. What it does have is a little sign warning parents about the absence of railings, which I found to be an expression of the museum’s sense of humor, and also a hint as to bygone calamities. Like a visiting celebrity, my son stopped at each table where guests were seated and did his little wave and smile routine, causing them to melt (or maybe that was the heat), before I took his hand and directed him back through café, lobby, and front door, where we admired the stair-step waterfall one last time before I picked him up and half-walked, half-ran to the blessedly covered parking deck, finding car, car seat, sippy cup, air conditioning, and last but not least, radio, tuned as always to something classical, except when it’s not.