Summer of Awesome – National Gallery of Canada

Last week I took the kids to the National Gallery to see the Van Gogh exhibit, which is in town only until September. The kids complained LOUDLY and FREQUENTLY about being made to visit the art gallery. I suspect that they saw it as more of a homework/school type outing than something really fun. It probably didn’t help that Gal Smiley did a unit on Van Gogh in art class this year so I kept saying how wonderful it was that she could see some of his work in person, how enriching and what a great opportunity.

No wonder they think Sir Monkeypants is the fun one.

Anyway, we went. And we did have a pretty good time overall.

National Gallery of Canada

Here are some things you will NOT be doing at the National Gallery, if you attend with your young children:

  • sitting and gazing quietly before a favourite work of art, as you contemplate its deeper meaning
  • wandering joyfully through back galleries as you discover new artists to love
  • sharing teachable moments with your children as you open their eyes to the wonderful process that is man’s artistic growth

No, you will not.

However! Fun can still be had, if you keep a few things in mind.

Arrive Late. The museum opens at 10 a.m., but there’s no point in getting there before 11. That’s when the Artissimo program opens. Artissimo is the gallery’s program for kids and it is excellent and fun and awesome, and SO much better than just wandering through the galleries aimlessly with children who would rather be jumping on stuff. It runs only on the weekends during the year but in the summer, the program is open every day.

What makes Artissimo so great? It’s a wide variety of activities meant to engage the younger crowd. First of all, kids aged 3 and up can make their own work of art, using real art paper and a stellar selection of tools. Gal Smiley created this lion picture using watercolour pencils – pencil crayons that create a paint effect when water is added.

Gal Smiley artwork, National Gallery of Canada

To help kids explore the gallery, there’s also two self-guided tours you can take – one about animals in art, one about cool architecture. There’s an audio tour, where you are led to certain artworks and then you play a sound, and try to connect the two. There are costumes where you can dress up and pretend to be people from various pictures.

And best of all, there’s the dolls.

William the Doll, Artissimo Program, National Gallery of Canada

This is William. He’s one of five different gorgeous, painstakingly detailed dolls that are part of the Artissimo program. You can sign out a doll, then search the gallery (with some hints and clues) to find the painting featuring the character. My girls loved this activity, we did every single doll and learned a lot about art in the process. It was the clear highlight.

Visit the Van Gogh exhibit, but have low expectations. The Van Gogh exibit is really, really good. It does not feature his most famous works – no Starry Nights or Sunflowers or self-portraits with missing ears. However, it does include dozens of his other paintings and the way they are laid out clearly traces the paths of his various influences.

I learned a lot about his style, his use of colour, and his favourite themes, and all that despite racing through the exhibit at top speed. My kids complained a LOT during the exhibit – shuffling through rooms of art, surrounded by crowds, was SO BORING they could just DIIIIIIIIE. So we hurried through, but even then they couldn’t avoid picking out a favourite painting or two, and learning a little bit along the way.

Plus, there’s an interactive room near the end where you can create your own work of art on an iPad; do a large magnetic wall puzzle; listen to Van Gogh-era music; and write a letter to Van Gogh and receive an email reply in his own words. The lady running this room (Maddie, I think) was super welcoming to the kids and they really had fun here.

As an added bonus, kids under 12 are free – so it only cost me my own entry fee, $25, which also covered my museum admission.

Follow the rules, Oh my heavens, the National Gallery is a rules-y kind of place. They are BIG on the rules. And you will be warned, repeatedly, to FOLLOW THE RULES.


No backpacks are allowed, no kinds of large bags or anything you would carry on your back or waist. Ladies can bring a handbag if it isn’t too big, and I believe you can get an exception for diaper bags. My kids are big enough now that I don’t need to carry diapers around, but I do like to bring our own snacks due to the food allergy thing, so I often use a backpack – at the gallery, you have to check it. Speaking of snacks, the cafeteria there is a little high class – soups and fancy salads type fare – so if your kids are more of a chicken nuggets and french fries crowd, you may wish to bring your own food (in a checked backpack, of course) or perhaps plan your trip between mealtimes.

No photos of any kind allowed anywhere, except in the open glassed-in tower where the Artissimo program runs. (I may have taken that photo of William the doll, above, in the bathroom. I admit nothing.) If they even see you thinking about taking out your camera, they’re on you.

No getting too close to the art. No touching the art! No breathing on the art. That’s too close. Maybe you shouldn’t even LOOK AT THE ART.


I swear every single security guard in the place came over to us and warned us, in every single room, about stepping back from the art. My kids aren’t even that young – 9, 7, and 5. I can’t imagine the headache involved in trying to explain to your two year old why that line of bricks on the floor is art, and we musn’t touch it, or step on it, or come within three feet of it. GAH.

So be sure to travel light, leave your camera in your handbag, and stay back. FARTHER BACK.

Once we were done with the Van Gogh exhibit and settled into the Artissimo stuff, my kids relaxed and enjoyed themselves. Despite their best efforts, they even learned something, as demonstrated by the quiz I gave them on the ride home.

Told you I’m not the fun one.

One thought on “Summer of Awesome – National Gallery of Canada

  1. We went to the art gallery this summer too and saw Van Gogh as well as a good chunk of the rest of the gallery. We had a wonderful day. But…in the Rideau chapel where they have the music exhibit, my 10yo lay down on the floor near a bench. She is quite artistic and sensitive in nature, and I know she was soaking in the ambiance and music and not just being goofy. Of course, we were pounced upon by security and she felt miserable after. On one hand, I get it. Someone could have tripped and all, but it wasn’t crowded and since she was near benches she wasn’t in anyone’s way. I thought it was just too bad.

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