Every year, the Met welcomes close to twenty thousand family members who participate in more than five hundred special activities. But we didn't always have such a large family audience. In fact, in the past, many children and families on their own found the Museum a little overwhelming. There is so much to see it's sometimes hard to know where to start. In 2003, in order to make children and families feel more welcome, the Museum created a committee to look at improving communication with families, making the environment of the Museum itself more welcoming, and offering educational programming to families. One of the programs that emerged from these discussions combines the two simple premises that busy families may only have thirty minutes to learn something, and that everyone loves to know how things are made. We decided to call the new program "How Did They Do That?" and base it right in the galleries, where three charismatic teachers would teach six half-hour sessions. Now, seven years later, "How Did They Do That?" is one of our most popular family programs.
Each "How Did They Do That?" session begins with a demonstration of the materials, tools, and techniques that go into the making of a certain type of art. Families gather in front of a handling cart with examples that they can touch and see up close. After the demonstration, the families have the opportunity to look at actual examples of works in the Museum's galleries. The themes change all the time, and "How Did They Do That?" programs have now taught families about pre-Columbian, ancient Roman, and nineteenth-century French bronze casting; medieval manuscript illumination; American silver-smithing; Renaissance marble carving; medieval stained glass making; Impressionist and Old Master painting techniques; Western and Japanese arms and armor making; ancient Greece vase painting; ancient Egyptian carving; Chinese scroll painting; the making of the Astor Court; and Oceanic wood carving.
"How Did They Do That?" programs are very popular, with each one welcoming hundreds of family members in the course of an afternoon. (The record is 1,300 visitors in two weekend afternoons.) And we keep refining the program. For instance, we've learned to make up "treasure hunts" of adjacent galleries for visitors who are waiting for a session to begin, and we recently set up a drawing station within earshot of the demonstration so that children can be creative while listening to the nearby lesson.
One of my favorite aspects of a particular program is what happens before it even begins, when curators, conservators, and educators work together to shape the lesson's activities. The generosity of these experts—who often find the most interesting things in their desk drawers and on their shelves for us to use in our cart—is a huge factor in this program's success.
Mike Norris is a Museum educator.