Adventures with a baby 1: the Art Institute of Chicago

It was my birthday on Monday, and I decided the best way to celebrate was by going on a solo expedition with baby A involving long trips on public transport with dubious lift access. Yes – we were going on a stroller tour of the Art Institute. I love the Art Institute: its architecture, its stone lions, its nineteenth-century paintings, its special exhibitions, its weird tiny collections of paperweights and textiles, and, of course, its shop.

What, you may wonder, is the point in taking a baby to an art gallery? I’m sure I’ve met people who might think I was doing her untold good by exposing her to art. But I had no such illusions. I was looking for a way of doing something cultural without anyone tutting at me if my baby started crying (or, worse, throwing us out, as happened to journalist Dea Birkett’s child, prompting her to found the Kids in Museums campaign). And that, it turns out, is exactly what the Art Institute’s monthly stroller tours are all about.

It is all pretty odd, though. The stroller tours (stroller = American English for buggy) are only open to members of the Art Institute.  We became members because a membership lets you take one guest for free each time, thereby saving you money if you go three times a year, which with a steady stream of visitors from Britain we were bound to do. But at the same time, of course, you’re buying into a club for the moneyed and cultured. Our basic membership gets us into a Lounge with flasks full of coffee and hot water, packets of tea and slices of lemon, comfy chairs and a range of books for browsing. It is very quiet. Whenever M and I go we sit around rather self-consciously feeling that everyone else there is, like us, self-consciously sipping lukewarm tea and pretending to think sophisticated thoughts about the exhibits, while actually wishing they’d shelled out for a cappuccino. That’s the basic membership: but there are actually no fewer than 12 levels of membership, with more and more exclusive lounges, parties and tours.

The stroller tours are described as ‘recommended for caregivers with children 18 months and younger‘, and are clearly designed to facilitate new mothers’ access to art. The Institute has a good record on access, having been founded for public education in the first place. And as our tour gathered the five young women gathered around at the foot of the main stairs took pains to reassure me that it was fine if baby A cried, that the tour was designed to provide lots of calming movement and large rooms for stroller-pushing, and that they were delighted to have us there.

The tour finished gathering. There were four babies, three mothers and two grandmothers. One of the five Institute women peeled off but four remained, giving us a guide/baby 1:1 ratio that would be the envy of many nurseries. The tour theme was love, family and friendship. We began in a largely empty gallery of what I think were 17th century paintings narrating some kind of mythological love story, but since baby A screamed through that part, I can’t be sure. All the women smiled encouragingly. One of them offered to push the stroller. And as A stopped crying, we moved on to a pair of portraits by David and Ingres with an interesting treatment of motherhood, and then to a portrait of Sisley and Van Gogh’s bedroom. The guide was funny and interesting and coped very well with the babies’ constant interruptions. I thoroughly enjoyed myself. But all the while the other women were hovering, and I gradually realised that their function was to placate everyone else in the gallery as soon as they gave any indication that our babies were ruining their enjoyment. I felt half pariah, half VIP.

The picture at the top of this post brings out the weirdest aspect of the whole visit. It is what the Institute’s website describes as a nursing area, in the basement, on the way into the women’s loos. Despite the rather grand designation and sign, it’s a curtained alcove that contains only the wooden chair that you can probably just make out, which is profoundly ill-suited to breastfeeding (an armchair would be much easier to manage on, or they could even provide a cushion for propping the baby if they genuinely wanted to help), and a changing table. If more than one woman in the entire museum wanted to feed at the same time you would be stuffed. And yet at the same time I was happy to find the place, and we had a lovely peaceful feed there.

Baby A got something out of it all too, I think.  She seemed to be fascinated by the different lights and shadows in the different parts of the Institute, from the stripy shadows in the brown internal corridors to the bright white of the Modern Wing. She was, in fact, so stimulated that she fell asleep for two and a half hours as soon as we left, and I made all my birthday phonecalls in peace.

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About scepticalexpat

British 30something wannabe academic, moving to Chicago for three years in August 2010.
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