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TAKING THE KIDS

Young Visitors to the Louvre Smile Back at Mona Lisa

May 16, 1999|EILEEN OGINTZ

PARIS — The kids elbowed their way to the front of the crowd, determined to get the best look they could at the most famous lady in the world. They weren't disappointed.

"She looked straight at me, I'm sure!" 7-year-old Melanie said. Even the two typically blase 12-year-olds with us were convinced Mona Lisa's famous smile changed when she saw them.

"Impossible," I said, laughing. "People in paintings don't move, not even the 'Mona Lisa.' " The kids made it clear I was wrong and rushed off to buy souvenir prints.

I'd been wrong about how they'd like the Musee du Louvre in Paris, they reminded me, so maybe I was wrong about the "Mona Lisa" too.

Rather than being bored or overwhelmed as I'd expected--there are about 30,000 works of art in the world's largest museum, stretching nearly half a mile--they were fascinated at every turn, from the religious paintings with angels to the Egyptian mummy to the armless Venus de Milo. They tried to imagine what it must have been like to live in the huge, ornate galleries centuries ago when the Louvre was a king's palace. They even liked touring the History of the Louvre rooms and seeing the moats.

When we visited last summer, much of the 15-year "Grand Louvre" renovation program had been completed. My gang especially loved entering through I.M. Pei's 71-foot-high glass pyramid and breezing through the indoor "mall," Le Carrousel. The cafeteria, under the pyramid, won raves because they could watch their cre^pes being made. So did the sacred animals and the sphinxes in the Egyptian rooms.

My tack for taking the kids to the Louvre was the same as in Disney World. I knew we couldn't see everything, so we didn't try. I didn't make us crazy rushing from Greek antiquities to Islamic art to 13th century Italian art to 19th century French paintings. Instead, I let the girls' interest guide us. We bought postcards of some of the masterpieces when we arrived so that Melanie could "hunt" for the treasures. We lingered when they were curious and kept walking when they weren't.

One regret is that we hadn't read more beforehand about what we would see. I also wished I'd stashed a couple of sketch pads and pencils in my bag, so that they could have drawn what they saw.

"The biggest mistake parents make is coming without any preparation," said Jean Galard, the Louvre's chief cultural official. He noted that more than a million children a year visit the Louvre, most with school groups.

Unlike many American art museums, the Louvre has no children's galleries, no place where youngsters might touch anything.

"Keep the first visit short," Galard advised. "You want them to have a good first visit so they'll want to return."

That's what the Maltman family did. "You just want the kids to get a feel for what an amazing place this is--so many antiquities under one roof," said Marianne Maltman, a Chicago resident who brought her two grade-school-age daughters for a brief visit to see the "Mona Lisa."

Coleman Whittier of North Carolina was back with her two young children for the second time. "We always take them to see something they want to see first," she explained. "It's easier if they're excited about what we're seeing."

But no matter what you're seeing, don't expect young kids to last very long, she warned.

If you're in Paris for several days, stop in two or three times, visiting just a gallery or two.

Save some time by purchasing your tickets by phone. (In France, call 01-40-20-53-17.) Head to the Louvre on Monday evenings, when only part of the museum is open, or Wednesday evenings to avoid crowds. It's cheaper, too, after 3 p.m.; and all day Sunday admission is reduced from about $7.90 to $4.60. Kids under 18 are free any time. (Visit the Louvre Web site at http://www.louvre.fr.)

Whenever you go, the key is to leave before the kids' eyes start to glaze over. When my girls had had enough, we headed to the Tuileries gardens and the small amusement park open in the summer months. (There's ice skating in the winter.)

For once, I thought, watching them play in the afternoon sunlight after our successful visit to the Louvre, I'd planned smart. No one was whining. Everyone was comparing notes about what they'd seen. Long-lasting memories were made that day.

Months later, the kids are still talking about Paris and the "Mona Lisa." Next time, they're convinced, I'll glimpse her magic too.

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