By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

Chicago’s museums are second to none.  Though all the major museums in the Windy City are worth an afternoon or two, none is better, in my humble opinion, than the Art Institute of Chicago.  As luck would have it, theAIC-Facade-North-View1 AIC is all of two blocks away from the Chicago campus of Robert Morris University.  For each class I teach, I try to create at least one assignment that gets the students over to the AIC for a couple hours. If I have a little free time, I am more than happy to join them.

As a father, I have been looking forward to taking my two daughters to the Art Institute for some time.  The girls have already visited the Shedd Aquarium, the Museum of Science and Industry, and the Field Museum more times than I can count.  I take them to museums because I want them to gain an appreciation for Chicago’s cultural attractions early in life. How early?  Well, my daughters are now 7 and 5 respectively.  You may think this is too young for places like the Field, but you would be dead wrong.  The girls love it there, and never get enough of the Evolving Planet exhibition, the Ancient Egyptian exhibition or the Hall of Gems.  Heck, they even have had fun going into the special exhibits on Ghenghis Khan and The History of the Horse.  The Field, not to mention the Museum of Science and Industry are wonderful places for children, since their exhibits are usually pretty flashy and hands-on.

On the other hand, the AIC is a bit more staid and serious.  I love the AIC, but it is safe to say the term ‘hands-on’ isn’t very welcome there. Still, both my girls are pretty well-behaved, and they love doing, and looking at art, so I figured it was time to break the seal.  The perfect opportunity to take them to the AIC presented itself the day before RMU’s December Holiday break. Since the girls did not have school, and their babysitter could not watch them, my wife and I decided to bring them to the downtown campus for the day trading off parenting duties between our classes. During my two hours with my little…angels, I figured I would introduce them to the Art Institute.  Why not?  I figured they were finally ready, or, perhaps, I was finally ready.

I am happy to say that the experience was a positive one.  The girls really enjoyed themselves, and though the younger one  took her teddy bear in, they didn’t end up breaking anything.  In fact, I was pleasantly surprised to realize that a good number of exhibits at the museum were, at least partially, ‘hands on’.  Some pieces had computer tablet set-ups that allowed viewers, including my girls, to investigate the art more closely.  The girls loved this, and since they have been using touchscreen computers since, roughly, their births, they were able to really go crazy playing with images of the art.

As a parent, the ‘hands-on’ aspect of the museum was a nice surprise. But, also as a parent, the gruesomely violent nature and/or graphic sexuality of much of the art was an unpleasant shock.

Now, let me make myself clear. Neither I, nor my wife, are prudes or philistines.  I am not some ignorant bumpkin who never noticed the raciness of art before.  I am not embarrassed or disgusted each time I walk into the Ancient Greek exhibits.  But, as I walked my girls around the museum, I was looking at the artwork through new eyes; parents’ eyes. I have been looking at art during my adult life as a student, or a connoisseur (honestly a dilettante), or a teacher, and never as the protector of two small girls standing by my side.  As parents, my wife and I have tried to shield our children from the violence of television and movies as best we can.   Then, boom!  I let my guard down at an institution devoted to culture with a capital C, and as we walked out of the area devoted to Impressionism, we stumbled upon this:


And, here come the questions.

What is she doing to him?  Is that blood? Why are they cutting his head off?

Crap. This is a tough one. As I tried to scoot the girls out of the room, they didn’t want to go. They were transfixed by the gruesomeness, and obvious taboo nature of the painting.

So, what could I do?  I did not want to shut the door on this experience.  I decided not to cover my girls’ eyes, ears or mouths.  Let me try to explain.  After all, no matter how much I want to protect them from worldly knowledge, they are going to come upon such images sometime, or someplace. It might as well be in the reverent halls of the AIC, instead of the trash-heap of FX, FOX, or A&E.

“Well, girls….you see….”

  1. liz says:

    This post triggered a bunch of thoughts for me:

    1) Love the irony that you face this quandary at a museum over a picture of a depiction from the Old Testament. That damn bible is full of death and destruction!
    2) The picture of Judith Slaying Holofernes at least doesn’t give the appearance of modern day. While bloody and violent, it can be seen as a picture of something that happened long ago. I am old enough that I was Noah’s age during the Vietnam war. Nightly television news, magazines such as Time and Life, as well as the newspapers regularly showed the horrors, casualties, and faces of war. The death toll was announced nightly on the news. Even as a 7 or 8 year old it was tough to avoid seeing. I knew that the violence was occurring daily and that people who we knew were over there in danger. I remember thinking perhaps growing up wasn’t really something I wanted to do.
    3) Some parents are so anxious for their kids to grow up. I love that you allow them to be kids and embrace their youth and naivete.
    4) I need to look and see if we still have a game called Masterpiece. If I do, I am passing it on to you. We played this with the kids when they were young. All of the pictures are from the Art Institute. We loved hunting for these Masterpieces within the Museums four walls. We all had our favorites.

    Next trip you can make it the miniatures room!

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