WASHINGTON — With its peaceful and pristine hallways that are decorated with historic paintings and photographs, the National Portrait Gallery may not be the first destination that comes to mind as a place for kids to play. But that’s about to change.
On Saturday, Jan. 28, the museum will open its new interactive children’s exhibit, called “Explore! With the Portrait Gallery.” Inside the first-floor space, little ones can experiment with silhouettes, pose for a digitally projected portrait or play Picasso using blocks, magnets and felt cutouts to construct faces.
Kim Sajet, director of the National Portrait Gallery, says portraiture is important for many reasons.
“It’s a skill at an early age, to understand if someone is looking confused or sad or happy,” Sajet said. “We spend our whole lives looking at each other and we make assumptions about someone depending on how they look, and I think we want to have those conversations early with kids — just because someone is different from you doesn’t mean that you don’t share the same feelings.”
The space, which also houses a few reading nooks and a small collection of artwork, is a pop-up of sorts for Explore! Children’s Museum, an initiative from real estate developer and philanthropist Jane Lipton Cafritz to build a children’s museum in the nation’s capital.
“It’s one of the only major cities in the United States without a children’s museum,” said Rhonda Buckley-Bishop, president and CEO of Explore!
“[Lipton Cafritz] saw the synergy between portraiture and what children can do around identity.”
The fuchsia-walled room, located steps from the Gallery Place/Chinatown Metro, is designed for little ones 18 months to 8 years old. Every activity in the exhibit is hands-on.
“Play is how children develop the cognitive, emotional, physical and social abilities, so we need to provide opportunities to play,” said Buckley-Bishop, adding that Explore! hopes to open its own museum in the Fort Totten neighborhood of Northeast D.C. by 2019.
The National Portrait Gallery’s Sajet says the new space is also a way to introduce children to museums.
“If children get used to coming to museums, they’ll become lifelong museum goers. I also think we have this role to play in terms of early childhood education,” she said.
More importantly, it gets little eyes away from emojis and exposes them to the human condition.
“We’re all going digital … we don’t always get to be good at reading people’s faces in real life. Dare I say, there may be a little bit of a divide there about the real human contact vs. the digital human contact, so I think it’s kind of nice to introduce the idea of portraiture. It’s around us everywhere,” Sajet said.
Explore! With the Portrait Gallery opens Saturday, Jan. 28 at 11:30 a.m. The bilingual exhibit will be open Tuesday through Sunday from 11:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. The National Portrait Gallery is located at 8th and F Streets N.W.; admission is free.
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