It might be the tell-tale giggles you hear rippling through the class as you travel from one point to another on your tour. It could be their quiet gasps as students round a comer and come face-to-face with a Rodin sculpture. Or, you may get a direct question from ;m innocent-looking little girl in the back row. Sooner or later, kids on your school tour will let you know they have a question. “Why are there so many pictures of naked people in the museum?”
Elementary school children are genuinely embarrassed at being confronted with nudity in works of art, and you have probably noticed that the more sexually explicit the nude, the more seductive the pose, the more uncomfortable the children become. We need tactics for creating discussions with kids that will both allay some of their anxieties about the subject (expressed through giggles or gasps) and communicate our respect for the work of artists who create nudes. Each docent must come up with his or her own set of answers for children, but keep in mind the ideas below as you think through your responses.
You can skip the nudes. One way of dealing with students’ embarrassment is to leave nudes out of your tour. If you do include them, or cannot avoid including them, try to be selective. Some works cause so much embarrassment in children that you cannot teach from them.
You don’t have to make a big deal about it. Dealing with the issue of nudes in art head-on (so to speak) may take up a lot of valuable time on your tour. One option is simply to ignore the giggles and gasps. For students in grades K – 3, this may be the best response. They cannot really understand why people paint nudes, so a simple acknowledgment of their feelings like, “We sometimes see things in museums that embarrass us, don’t we?” may be your best bet.
Make the answer fit the child. Many kids have heard the explanation that, “the human body is a thing of beauty,” but it doesn’t satisfy them because they can’t understand it. They are too young to think of the human body in such a detached, or philosophical, way. Here are some alternatives you might try:
- The answer varies from culture to culture. In African art, for example, figures are almost always shown at least partially nude, in part because this is how people in hot climates dressed. In Chinese art, there is far less nudity. Chinese painters concentrate on nature, instead of the human figure (clothed or unclothed), as their main subject. In the Western European tradition, the art of Ancient Greece has long been held as a model for artists to follow. In Greek society, the human body was highly revered, and Greeks painted and sculpted the nude often. (This answer is particularly helpful for groups who have religious or cultural strictures against showing the body. Museums show things from many cultures, and from these objects we can learn something about how people think and feel, even if we disagree with their values.)
- Paintings or sculptures of nudes create a sense of timelessness. If you notice, most of the paintings in the museum show people with their clothes on. In those paintings, we can guess the time period and country of the people depicted by the clothes they wear. Some people say that paintings of nudes, by contrast, are timeless. Without clothes, the person can belong to almost any time or place.
- Remind young people how difficult it is to draw figures. Most kids draw a dress or pants and a shirt for the body, because it is easier than trying to make the legs look like real legs. It is hard enough to make hands and face look real. The human figure is technically one of the greatest challenges an artist can undertake. Imagine painting or sculpting skin, veins, muscles, skeletal structure, posture, proportion, as well as trying to communicate an idea, all without being able to use straight lines or bright colors!
- Perhaps the most honest answer of all is to admit that children probably cannot understand all the reasons nudes are painted and sculpted. Elementary school-aged children do not understand sexual attraction, even if they are aware of it. They do not admire other people’s bodies. These are adult feelings. For the most part nudes were made by adult artists expecting adult viewers to look at them. You might try saying something like this. . .
“Art museums are ‘grown-up’ places. Kids are welcome and we love to have them come here, but it is not like Sesame Street or Disney World. When you come to art museums, however, you see adult things; things like war, death, and nudity. These are subjects adults think about. I know that looking at nudes embarrasses you, but if you visit art museums, and I hope we see you here a lot, you just have to get used to it.”
This last answer seems to have a particularly calming effect on students. It’s almost as if they are relieved to be given permission to not understand why there are nudes depicted in art.
As children grow, questions about nudity change but they do not disappear. High school students ask, “Why are the women so fat?” or “Why are there mostly female nudes?” With older children we can begin to introduce more sophisticated ideas about nudes. In African sculpture, for example, the female body is often used as a symbol of agrarian fertility. In Hindu art the sexual union of male and female is seen as a metaphor for the union a devotee seeks with his god. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Picasso shocked the art world with his violation of the female form in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, and at the height of the twentieth century abstraction painting the nude was considered a rebellious act.
Like so many things kids ask about, “Why are there so many pictures of naked people in the museum?” turns out to be a question with many layers of answers. The challenge is to come up with a response that both satisfies kids at their current level of understanding and also leaves the door open for further exploration.
Note – The author wishes to thank museum teachers Amy Jared, Tori Vannes, Carol Losos, and Ms. Purnell’s 5th grade class from Highland Park Schoolfor sharing their ideas on this subject.
Maria Shoemaker is the Associate Curator of Education for Youth and Family Programs at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Ms. Shoemaker is frequent lecturer/presenter at museum conferences throughout the country and was named the “1992 Outstanding Pennsylvania Museum Art Educator of the Year” by the Pennsylvania Art Education Association. Ms. Shoemaker authored the article “Watching Children Grow: A Guide to Childhood Development” in the Autumn 1992 issue of The Docent Educator.
Shoemaker, Maria. “The Naked Truth: Or How to Respond to the Tell-Tale Giggle,” The Docent Educator 2.3 (Spring 1993): 16-17.