Mom Docent: A Beginner's Guide to the de Young and Legion of Honor, on Free Days and Beyond
By Beth Ryan
The DeYoung Museum and Legion of Honor Museum offer free entry the first Tuesday of every month. For some, fine art museums can seem rather intimidating. But I promise you, as a regular visitor, these are friendly places where all are welcome! And while these museums are not necessarily “child-friendly” in the traditional sense (NO TOUCHING!), they are incredible spaces to bring your kids.
Free Days are a low-stakes way to introduce your family to these museums and their treasures—if things aren’t going your way, simply cruise out the exit and try again next month. And on this Tuesday, an Election Day, I can think of no better way to celebrate your civic participation than to roam the halls among a cross section of the city, taking in beautiful and diverse works of art….for free. If you’re home with your baby on parental leave, head out early and have the space to yourself (both museums open at 9:30). If you’re picking up your kids at 4pm from school, take a detour on the way home and spend a half hour sketching (the museums don’t close until 5:15).
Still feel intimated? Here's some basic info to get you started….
The de Young Museum and the Legion of Honor are both under the umbrella of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. You can't go wrong with either museum, but they each have their strengths. The Legion of Honor houses the European Collection. It's in Lincoln Park, with exquisite views of the Bridge and the Bay. There's easy and free parking by the fountain, and street parking on El Camino del Mar and Lincoln Highway just past the museum. The 18 bus stops right outside. It's slightly calmer and less populated than the de Young, even on free days. And kids love to walk, run, and skip through the colonnade and its enormous columns.
The de Young, in Golden Gate Park, has American, African, Oceanic, and Mesoamerican collections. It also has an awesome observation tower that is free every day, no museum admission needed to enjoy (elevators are just past the ticketing desks). There is an underground parking garage attached (pricey, but undeniably convenient). Street parking on MLK and JFK is available but can be tough if you get there later in the day. The 44 bus stops right in front of the museum (If you end up going on a regular admission day, you can show your Muni ticket to receive two dollars off the price of admission at both museums).
Note that the Free Day does not include entrance to the special exhibits at each museum. You have to pay separately for them. Sometimes museum passes are available on SFPL's Discover & Go, though not with any regularity, so look ahead in the website's calendar to reserve these free passes.
Strollers and front carriers are allowed, though guards may restrict strollers in the special exhibitions depending on the crowd. Back carriers, carriers with metal frames, and regular backpacks cannot be worn. They don’t want you to back into a painting! The de Young coat check on the bottom floor offers carriers to borrow for free (not available at the Legion).
Nursing and bottle-feeding is allowed in all the galleries (per California law), but be a good citizen and exercise extreme care with your liquids. If you’re at the Legion and your baby is hungry, I highly recommend the ceramics gallery downstairs and to the left, which has comfy, stylish chairs, and is very rarely visited by others. At the de Young, the African galleries on the second floor are dimly lit and sparsely populated, and a long, comfortable built-in bench at the very end of the American galleries overlooks the sculputure garden. All are beautiful places to sit and feed your baby.
Food and drink for older kids is not allowed in the galleries. Technically, you cannot bring outside food into the cafes, but I often brought cheerios or teething biscuits for mine when they were little, with no conflict. The food at the de Young cafe is much better for kids than the cafe at the Legion. The de Young has lots of small treats and fruits ($1.00 string cheese is our go-to), and a kids’ menu if you’re going for lunch. The Legion’s fare is a little fancier and more expensive (though also delicious), with mostly full entrees and formal, plated desserts. They do have a small selection of chips, when in a pinch.
Both cafés have excellent coffee options, and wine by the glass if you’re pretending you’re in Europe. And both have beautiful outdoor areas to enjoy nice weather.
As you move on to the galleries, the tone of your visit will depend on the age and personality of your family. Below are some age-specific tips that might help you all engage with the art.
For parents with Infants
Strap 'em in and enjoy some time to yourself. The museums are excellent places for a baby to nap while you peruse. Try finding a single painting that you connect with. Stare at it for a whole minute to notice all the detail you can. Go crazy and read the label! You now have a new friend you can come back to visit whenever you’d like. And as your kid gets older, you can continue to return to show them the paintings that you’ve loved. You can splurge for an audio tour for yourself ($8), or you can schedule your visit around a free docent-led tour at either the DeYoung or Legion.
If your child is awake during your visit, there’s a fair amount of visual stimulation that just may keep them happy. Use the paintings and sculptures as prompts to talk to them, and point out things they might be starting to recognize (clouds, ocean, colors, shapes, animals, etc.).
For toddlers and preschoolers
Start by setting some expectations. When my kids were toddlers, we emphasized two important rules:
1. No Running
2. No Touching
They needed reminders every time we entered a new gallery. But they followed these rules! And they did best when they were engaged.
To keep them engaged, a great activity for toddlers is an informal scavenger hunt. Decide on one or two items beforehand (e.g., dogs, flowers, birds, chairs, carpets, etc.). Ask them to find as many of those objects as they can while you move through the galleries (remind them not to touch as they eagerly point to an object they’ve found). You can help them take a picture with your phone to document the finds and view at the end of your visit. If you’re in the Legion with a younger toddler, I highly recommend the Medieval and Renaissance Galleries (when you enter the museum, turn left, and then left again, or simply ask a guard). There you can ask your kid to find all the babies. When my own daughter was younger, she loved being able to point out Jesus and Mary. Passersby assumed we were deeply religious. But no, just a former Art History major and her offspring.
For school-aged kids (and some older preschoolers)
When you’re looking at art with your kids, let them take their time and really engage with the work. Follow their lead in choosing an interesting work, and then ask them a few of the following questions, giving them a moment to think before talking, and join in with your own answers.
What do you like about this picture?
What do you think is happening in this picture?
What do you think will happen next in this story?
What do you think this person is thinking and feeling?
For all these questions, you can press further by asking them to explain why they think or feel a certain thing about the painting. (i.e. “What in the picture made you say that?”)
Scavenger hunts work with the older kids, too. You can ask them to find certain objects in paintings and sculptures, as with the younger kids. Or, before you walk into the museum, you can ask them to guess three random things they might find in a painting or sculpture, and then go searching for them together. Again, picture documentation gives them a sense of accomplishment.
Another awesome activity is to let them choose a work of art to reenact. My six year old no longer likes to do this—she feels embarrassed. But she does enjoy taking the picture while I mold my three-year-old son into the correct position in front of a painting (see above).
Finally, with older kids, bring a notebook and a pencil for each of you to sketch a work of art you like. These are allowed in the gallery (again, exercise caution). There is nothing like sketching to help you notice all the intricacies of a piece of art. Work on your own sketch next to your child to encourage them to stick with it for longer than a minute or two. Once you’ve spent some time doing this, the work really does become a part of you. And you need NO artistic skill—just some patience and some concentration. Show your child how you don't have to be perfect to enjoy an activity like drawing.
If you and your family liked some of these ideas, you can find out more about how to engage with art by visiting one of my favorite art education sites.
So this month, get the hang of visiting these museums with your brood. Then come back here next month for some specific stories and activities to enjoy on your next Free Day!
Beth is an archaeologist, freelance writer, and compulsive researcher. She lives in the Outer Sunset, but drags her two kids and husband to sites all over the Bay Area.
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