One of my favorite types of day trips is an outing that inspires and educates in addition to being a little quirky and just plain fun. The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art fits the bill on all counts.
Situated on the campus of Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachussets, the museum is a clean and modern building with huge windows that look out at the surrounding apple trees. Walking into the museum is a bit like opening one of Carle’s books; the lobby is lined with huge, bright canvases he painted hung against bright white walls.
There are three gallery spaces. On a visit late last fall we saw an exhibit that detailed Carle’s life and career (including a step-by-step explanation of how he creates his collages) as well as a fascinating exhibit that told the story of Pat the Bunny by Dorothy Kunhardt (did you know she actually made the prototype for this classic book to entertain her own three-year-old daughter?). On a previous visit we saw “Spiderwick: From Page to Screen” which showed how the drawings from the popular series were turned into cinematic magic and included many props from the 2007 movie.
On this visit the third gallery was showcasing works from the collection of Les and Zora Charles and included art from favorites everyone will recognize such as The Tale of Peter Rabbit, by Beatrix Potter and Jumanjii, by Chris Van Allsburg. There is something really thrilling about seeing pictures from a beloved book hung on the wall. Visits to this gallery inevitably turn into a scavenger hunt, filled with cries of “oh, look!” Looking at the paintings and drawings makes it clear that our favorite picture book illustrations are indeed art, as worthy of display as any “grown-up” installation.
The museum is currently celebrating Carle’s 80th birthday which coincides with the 40th anniversary of the publication of The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Upcoming exhibits include showcases of Tomie de Paola’s work and the art of Virginia Lee Burton (of Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel fame).
Right next to the galleries is a cozy library that is chock full of high-quality pictures books, many of which are also for sale in the fantastic museum shop. Also not to be missed is the large art studio where volunteers help inspired kids create a variety of different projects.
The museum is full of small, thoughtful details that will delight eagle-eyed kids. Even the bathrooms walls are with decorated with illustrations from Carle’s books. Be sure to pick up the Gallery Search activities booklets outside the galleries; these are designed to help children look for details in the art and to have them reflect on what they see in words and pictures.
Visit the museum’s wonderful website for directions, admission cost, and hours as well as many pictures and a virtual tour. You can plan several hours to see the art, visit the library, and spend time in the art studio and gift shop. The library has regularly scheduled story times and movies, concerts, or lectures are often scheduled in the auditorium.
There is a cafe in the musuem and visitors are also invited to bring a picnic snack or meal to eat there or outside on the grounds. I also recommend driving into nearby Northampton, where there are numerous kid-friendly restaurants, including my favorites, Sylvesters (for fantastic brunches) and Pizzeria Paradiso (fabulous pizza and starters like gorgonzola garlic bread).
For photos of the “found object” art projects my family made when we spent a morning at the museum in November, 2008 please visit The Mother of All Trips.