My head is always spinning with excitement when I encounter or learn something new. The pattern is predictable; ‘soak up what I see and hear’, and then ‘how can I teach this to children?’. I am constantly on a quest to learn. When that happens it’s a trigger, a shot of adrenaline. Well, it’s actually more than that; it’s the foundation for how I teach young children. If I’m excited, they will be too. The simplicity of that statement is powerful.
Over the past month I have visited three museums that were founded by philanthropists of the twentieth century; the Shelburne Museum in western Vermont, the Barnes Museum in Philadelphia, and Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. The visits were not planned, but the common denominator shouted loud and clear: Giving!
When I visit a museum I’m always excited and can often bring something to the classroom to inspire art or creativity. Museums have been a wonderful catalyst for learning; we have designed quilts that hang in a national museum and a Fisher House, and replicated art with passion. Yet now, I realize I have a bigger challenge; teaching young children that the beginning of every great thing begins with the spirit of giving. That is what I need to do.
Do you know Electra Havemeyer? I did not know of her before I visited the Shelburne Museum. She was a giver. She is the reason the Shelburne Museum exists. Do you know Albert C. Barnes? I did not know of him before I visited the Barnes Museum. He was a giver. His entire collection, including over 140 Renoir’s are the reason the Barnes Museum exists. Here is what he wrote in a letter to the master musician and conductor Leopold Stokowski in 1925:
“The most interesting thing in the world to me has always been a free, spontaneous expression of human nature – whether in a thought, a symphony, a poem, a painting, a statue, or an act of everyday life that shows the qualities of mind, heart and soul which, in my opinion, are the indispensables in any work of art.”
This was engraved in brass alongside an outdoor pool. It was a freezing cold, snowy and rainy day, yet I needed to read those words over again, and remember them. They were the beginning of what I knew I had to teach to my class of young children. Those words influenced what I saw in these museums, into what their founders believed. I understood.
This is far bigger than a Renoir painting. The whole thinking behind Barnes’ letter to Stokowski is the reason that a Renoir is displayed for the world to see. Giving is a great shift from “me” to “you”. That’s what a preschooler can understand. The tricky part is teaching this on a broad scale. That’s what I need to do, and I will.
I have a strong sense that many of the givers in the early part of the twentieth century had a larger vision. They saw (or perhaps understood) that giving needed to reach and teach all people, and that’s why we have living museums such as Williamsburg and Old Sturbridge Village.
Learning + Excitement + Caring = Giving.