Treasure hunting at New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art

Encouraging a young child to enjoy trips to the museum.

TOKYO, August 11, 2011—A ceramic box Maia made in eighth grade is always on prominent display in all the homes we have had throughout the years. It is one of the many ceramic projects she completed while attending VIS (Vienna International School).

Other projects include the black shoe that looked exactly like the loafers Maia wore to school, the blue dragon coming out of a green egg, and a green and pink teapot with a rose on its lid, definitely inspired by a trip to the Herend porcelain factory in neighboring Hungary.

Maia was never very good at making things with her hands. While all the other children in Ms. Whitelaw’s kindergarten class in UNIS (United Nations International School) indulged in finger painting, all she wanted to do was get the paint off her hands. She could not wait to go to the bathroom to wash her dirty hands. On days they were given glitter, girls and boys alike sprinkled it on themselves. Maia did not want any of it. She was very much bothered by glitter sticking to her fingers even after several trips to the sink.

When ceramic class started at VIS, most students dreamed of making vases, and lamps, and busts…all sorts of complicated objects. Maia wanted to make a box. She was a smart girl. She knew her limitations. What she lacked in technique though, she made up for with imagination.

She made a box. And although it was a triangular box, there was nothing very special about its shape. But it was an unusual box. It had a handle in the shape of a human ear. And it was painted yellow with barely discernible sunflowers and leaves.

And inside the box, there was a name. Vincent. For Vincent Van Gogh, the Dutch painter who could not sell a single painting while he was alive, but whose priceless sunflower paintings are now worshipped and admired everywhere.

The mad artist who cut off his own ear and sent it as an offering of peace to his friend and roommate Paul Gauguin. Vincent Van Gogh has much to do with Maia’s art appreciation.

Self Portrait, by Vincent Van Gogh

Maia’s box was the talk of the VIS art department. She was not much of an artist, but she had a passion for art. And it all started in New York City.

The summer that Maia was four, she had daily art lessons at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, one of the perks of living in Manhattan. She learned to mix colors, and on the day that she finally perfected grey by mixing black and white, she painted a very pretty elephant. In grey. But the class had moved on to another color. Mauve.

Maia loved art classes at the Metropolitan. At the end of each class, the teacher took the children to see one special painting in the museum. Maia had a favorite painting, and she took me to see it after each class.

The Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh.

Maia liked paintings. But Maia was also a four-year-old, and she would rather go to the zoo to look at Gus, the white polar bear. Gus could swim. I was very much impressed with the swimming polar bear, but I would rather look at the paintings of the Metropolitan.

To be in the Metropolitan everyday was a dream come true. It was my compensation for having spent many months within the walls of a compound in faraway Lagos. It was my reward for eating nothing but chicken twice a day during those months.

I turned to look at the four-year-old Maia who was watching Gus swim back and forth intently. I was never one to impose my preferences on others. Besides, her interest in swimming polar bears may one day lead to an exciting career. Expeditions in the Arctic. Zoology. Synchronized swimming. Dolphin trainer.

But for every hour in the zoo, I wanted an hour in the museum. I thought that was fair. And I wanted Maia to come with me willingly. I wanted her to have fun looking at Monet and Degas and Renoir. As much fun as watching Gus swim. I knew I had a problem.

And it was Maia who gave me the solution.

On the way out of the museum, as we passed the museum shop, she asked if I would buy her a postcard of The Starry Night. We went to look at the postcard rack, and as I searched for Vincent, a hundred-watt light bulb lit up in my head. It could have been a halogen bulb.

We left the museum shop with more than The Starry Night. Lots more.

The next day after art class, we had a conversation.

Maia: Can we go see Gus?

Mommy: Sure. But after we go on a treasure hunt?

Maia: A treasure hunt? What treasure hunt? Where?

Mommy: Right here.

Maia: There are treasures here?

Mommy: Definitely. Priceless treasures.

I started with the French Impressionist painters. Maia liked pretty pictures. I gave her five postcards. All French Impressionist paintings.

We climbed the Metropolitan’s majestic stairs to the second floor, and headed straight for the European paintings. I went around the room slowly, taking my time with each painting, looking at every detail. The envy of over-scheduled Japanese tourists.

Maia went around the room as well. To find the paintings of the treasure hunt, she had to look at every canvass in the room. And when she found a treasure, she would come to get me to show me what she found. And we would look at the treasure and compare it to the postcard in her tiny hands.

Maia loved treasure hunting at the Metropolitan. I was a valued customer at the museum shop. I eventually gave her a photo album for her postcards. And I took her treasure hunting at the Museum of Modern Art where she found Pablo Picasso’s painting of his daughter, Maya. A framed poster of that painting now hangs in her room.

The Frick Museum was another treasure hunting ground, and Maia fell madly in love with Francois Boucher and his pastel paintings with roses and cherubim. Years later, they were reunited at the Louvre.

Vincent, though, will always have a special place in her heart, especially after seeing three of the four sunflower paintings hanging in one room in Amsterdam. And it was Vincent who inspired her to be creative in spite of her limitations.

And Gus, the swimming polar bear. We continued to go and watch him swim all summer, and during the weekends in autumn, but we stopped visiting him when the temperature started dropping.  Maia seemed happy enough treasure hunting in the well-heated museums.

And she never showed any interest in becoming a synchronized swimmer.



For your enjoyment, a few of Vincent Van Gogh’s works:


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Cynthia Lim

Cynthia has lived, studied, worked and parented in more than a dozen cities in four continents.  Born in the Philippines, she is of Chinese heritage -- although she has never been to China, unless we count a few stopovers in Hong Kong -- and is now a Japanese citizen living in New York City.

She has a hard time answering the question, "Where are you from?"  She likes to think of herself as a nomad, or even a hermit crab, toting her home around on her back.

Even while traveling all over the world, Cynthia was able to raise a fantastic daughter -- kind, easy-going, and with admission offers from Harvard, Yale and Princeton, to boot!  Right now, she's looking forward to attending her daughter's college graduation in the spring, but in the meantime, she is keeping busy, taking classes at the French Culinary Institute, and offering seminars on international parenting and child-rearing in general. 

Contact Cynthia Lim


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