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Scott Brinton

Ode to the museum, font of creativity


I am a child, scavenging the halls of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan. I am 6 or 8 or 10; I can’t recall. Many of the world’s greatest works of art stare down at me. I am unimpressed. My eyes are fixed on the oak floor.

I am searching for the colorful clip-on buttons, about the size of a dime, that you receive at the front door when you make a voluntary contribution. I know nothing of contributions or paintings. I am fascinated by collecting the buttons, which I keep in a tan, metal box on my shelf at home, perfectly shaped to store index cards.

My parents, both painters and sculptors, started taking my brother and me to the Met before we could remember those visits. That was nearly a half-century ago. Some of my earliest memories are of dashing from one oversized room to the next in search of buttons. At some point, the Met replaced them with paper tickets, which made better sense. The buttons easily fell off a shirt collar, which explained why so many wound up on the floor.

I can’t recall at what age my gaze turned from the floor to the walls, but when it did, the whirlwind of colors and images, of people and places beyond my everyday reach, captivated me. I have loved museums ever since.

My wife grew up within walking distance of a half-dozen national museums in Sofia, Bulgaria. She, too, loves museums. So it only made sense to us to take our children to museums from early ages. There wasn’t really a lot of deep thought as to why. It was simply what educated parents did, we believed.

So it was disturbing, in 2012, to read “Freakanomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything,” in which the authors, Dr. Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, ask a provocative, if not insulting, question: “Do parents really matter?” Our kids were 12 and 10 at the time.

Levitt and Dubner examine what they call “obsessive” moms and dads — parents like my wife and me, who read to their children nightly and took them to museums when they were young. Then the authors look at whether all of this parenting affects children’s state test scores in late elementary school, and conclude through statistical analysis of one national study, conducted by the U.S. Department of Education in the 1990s, that it doesn’t.

“Freakanomics” was something of a phenomenon in the mid-2000s, spending 99 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list, rising to No. 2. I read it while on vacation in St. Augustine, Fla., seven years after its publication. The question of whether parents really matter has bugged me — haunted me, really — since I wrote the column “Freaking out over ‘Freakanomics,’” which appeared in the April 26-May 2, 2012, issue of the Herald. And yes, I can be that obsessive.

Specifically, I wondered whether it made any difference to our children’s education that we took them to museums at every opportunity, and for that matter, our local library. My wife and I lost track of the number of museums we took our kids to when they were little — the Met, the Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of Natural History, the Whitney, the Guggenheim, the Vanderbilt, Storm King Art Center, the National Institute of Archaeology in Sofia, the Sofia Museum of Natural History, the National History Museum of Bulgaria, the National Art Gallery of Bulgaria. And the list goes on.

We were also nearly weekly visitors to the Merrick Public Library. The children’s room was our home away from home. There were Broadway shows and concerts, too.

Recently, I finally got the answer to the question of whether taking your kids to museums — that is, cultural institutions — matters.

I found Levitt and Dubner’s argument that it doesn’t to be specious, at best, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on why back in 2012. I questioned their methodology — they based the conclusion on analysis of only one study. But I couldn’t say, definitively, why they were wrong.

Recently I read “The Runaway Species,” by Dr. David Eagleman, a Stanford University neuroscientist, and Anthony Brandt, a Rice University music professor. They explore the inner workings of the brain to uncover the very nature of creativity. Why, for goodness’ sake, are humans so damn creative?

All creativity, they argue, is predicated on history. Artists need great works of art to “bend, break and blend” into new creations. That is, they need a steady diet of paintings and sculptures to study and dissect, pull apart and reconfigure and reassemble into the next great masterpieces. Hence the need for museums.

So, too, writers need novels and newspapers. Musicians need concerts, in stadiums and coffeehouses.

If you’re a parent who takes your young children to museums, you may not boost their test scores (although who knows?), but you are, no doubt, fueling their creativity, which Eagleman and Brandt note, “reshapes the world.”

Scott Brinton is the Herald Community Newspapers’ executive editor and an adjunct professor at the Hofstra University Herbert School of Communication. Comments about this column? SBrinton@liherald.com.