Washington, D.C. is rife with activities for families with small children. From neighborhood parks, to the zoo, the National Mall and even theater for the very young, D.C. is a great place to keep your little ones entertained. Starting in late January, the National Portrait Gallery got in on the fun too.

In conjunction with the Explore! Children's Museum of Washington, D.C., the National Portrait Gallery now has a special space for children ages 18 months to 8-years-old to play and explore art in a space that makes them feel welcome. The large bright red room, on the first floor of the museum, has several interactive stations for kids to play and explore art, designed specifically with the younger art appreciator in mind.

Rebecca Kasemeyer, the National Portrait Gallery's associate director of education and visitor experience, is excited about the opportunities this new exhibit brings to the D.C. area. "We have some programming for younger, toddler aged," Kasemeyer said. "We have a monthly Monday morning toddler program and our family days are well populated, but we'd never done anything more permanent. So when we were approached by [Explore!], we were pretty sure we had an audience for this."

Among the stations is a silhouette tracing station with a light box, at which 9-year-old Messina Disparte was helping young children trace and be traced on a Tuesday in January. The fourth grader at Two Rivers School is an ambassador for the Explore! Museum and relishes the opportunity to help bring art to his young peers. "Just being with all of these cute little kids is so much fun," he said. "It sure is a lot of work, but I love how excited they are to be here. It's so great to be involved."

Other stations at the exhibit include a video art piece, where children can take a five-second silent video that is projected onto an adjacent wall. There is a play space with magnetic pieces that can be arranged and rearranged on a small partition. In another corner of the room, blocks with different facial features allow children to experiment with emotions and expressions as they build faces. There is also a reading nook area stocked with books for children who wish to read and relax. Kids are encouraged to engage in the different activities at their own level and enjoy the comfortable environment designed and developed just for them.

Local photographer and mother of four, Jamie Smith, was at the exhibit with her 2-year-old son. "I have a child with disabilities and this [space] seems more accessible than most," she said. "Everything is low to the ground, so the toddler can play, but there is still enough here to interest my older children as well."

Kasemeyer, along with a team at the National Portrait Gallery and the Explore! Museum, worked for more than a year to bring the exhibit to fruition. "During development, we visited the Pittsburgh Children's Museum and we worked very closely with Explore! because they bring an experience with that age audience, while also keeping our expertise in portraiture at the table as well." Kasemeyer said.

All of the text on the walls pertaining to the exhibit is written in both English and Spanish. "The National Portrait Gallery itself will be bilingual, English and Spanish, by 2018, and so in our temporary exhibitions we are already doing labels in both languages side by side. When we developed this space it made sense to offer both Spanish and English," Kasemeyer said.

The exhibit opened to the public during the last weekend in January and more than 1,000 people visited the exhibition room over the course of the two days. "We are obviously really excited to see how people are using and interacting with the exhibit," Kasemeyer said. "The "strike-a-pose" video is wildly popular with all ages. It's been great to also see older siblings on the floor with younger siblings playing with the blocks, so with the expertise of the Explore! Museum, we really feel we have hit our mark."

"There are many activities that draw local people down to the Penn Quarter and Chinatown area, so we are thinking more and more of ourselves as a local museum. We want to make sure we are reaching our audience," Kasemeyer said, "And we've been super happy with the way the exhibit has turned out so far."

The Explore! exhibit is open from Tuesday to Sunday from 11:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. For more information about the National Portrait Gallery, its location, the exhibit and what to expect, check the Explore! website at exploremuseum.org or the National Portrait Gallery exhibition website at npg.si.edu/exhibition/explore-national-portrait-gallery. The exhibit is expected to run for at least a year.


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