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Helping children enjoy and understand museum art

''Can you see any animals on these mummies?'' asked Elizabeth Greene, teacher of a preschool program at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. ''Sure,'' piped up a towheaded four-year-old boy, examining the colorful relics in one of the museum's Egyptian rooms.

''Look very carefully and tell me what you see.''

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''I see a parrot,'' offered a pony-tailed girl in pink.

''I also see a snake,'' another youngster added.

''You have very sharp eyes. Here you can see several birds and all their feathers,'' said the instructor, pointing to a section of one of the mummies. ''These drawings are really telling you a story,'' she continued as she began to explain about hieroglyphics and the ancient Egyptian way of life.

Later during the short gallery session, the children took pencils and paper to draw birds and other creatures decorating the mummies to use as ideas for a work project in a downstairs studio.

Many art museums around the country offer classes or tours for children, but parents themselves can help their children enjoy and understand art during museum visits.

''The most important thing is to try to enter into a discussion with the child about what they see in front of them,'' says Lois Raasch, director of the Junior Museum for the Art Institute of Chicago. ''Parents may feel hesitant or may not feel they're capable (of discussing art with children), but they already have a sophisticated eye in many ways.''

Questions a parent asks a child should be based on what they both can see in the painting or sculpture rather than on a knowledge of art history or historical fact. The questions, she adds, should not elicit a right or wrong answer.

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In a portrait, for example, a parent might ask, ''Is there something you would remember about that face?'' or ''What can you learn about that person from the way he is standing?''

Miss Raasch says her staff at the museum generally covers eight to 10 pieces of art in an hour or an hour and a half: ''That gives the child the opportunity to make comparisons.''

Parents may want to pick themes for a museum visit such as animals, shapes, or colors, says Lorri Berenberg, coordinator of workshop programs for the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Or they may want to focus on a particular culture and discuss what it has in common with their own lives or how it is different.

''The best thing a parent who is not an art historian can do is to bring the painting into the realm of the child's life,'' agrees Louis Gordon, museum educator for schools at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

One way to start is to bring the child's attention to clothing, food, or animals in paintings and other pieces of art.

In a room of portraits a parent might ask, ''Which person looks the nicest?'' ''How would it feel like to wear those kinds of clothes?'' or ''Who would you want to be your brother, your sister, or mother?'' Mrs. Gordon also points out that portraits often include background objects indicating a person's occupation or interests, which can spur an interesting discussion.

''It's often most beneficial for the parents, because it makes them look at the paintings closely themselves in order to ask the question,'' she says.

In discussing nonobjective art with their children, parents can focus on colors and shapes or help their children look for brushstrokes or other painting techniques. Another approach is to have children play the part of the artist and ask them questions about the painting from that perspective.

Mrs. Gordon says children show a special interest in decorative arts because they can easily understand their function. She finds children are also attracted to paintings of babies and other children.

After 30 to 45 minutes in the galleries, Mrs. Gordon suggests breaking for lunch or some other activity. ''Art museums are fun for young children in small doses,'' she says.

A new workbook, ''Let's Go to the Art Museum,'' by Virginia K. Levy, provides a good introduction to the art museum experience. Parents can take it along for their children to use while they go through the galleries.

In a bright, easy-to-follow format, the book gives basic explanations about different kinds of paintings such as portraits, still lifes, seascapes, landscapes, and nonobjective art. It also covers sculpture, prints and graphics, drawings, photography, primitive art, textile art, and other decorative arts.

Each topic includes black-and-white examples of master artworks, questions and suggestions for discussion parents might initiate, and space for children to try similar projects on their own.

Copies of ''Let's Go to the Art Museum'' may be obtained by sending $6.95, plus $1 postage and handling to, Veejay Publications, PO Box 1029, Pompano Beach , Fla. 33061.m

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