The Speed Art Museum’s Art Detectives program lets kids get hands-on with art

When an Art Detectives crate is unpacked in a classroom, kids get loud. The program, launched by the Speed Art Museum in 2013, lets kids get hands-on with art, equipping students with gloves and magnifying glasses to examine art and cultural artifacts up close. The students supply the curiosity.

“They just get really excited about being allowed to touch everything,” said Amber Thieneman, Teaching Programs Coordinator for the museum. “They’re engaged and talking the whole time.” Sometimes teachers attempt to hush students, but Thieneman said, “The teaching artists are always encouraging them to talk. They’re like, ‘Oh, no, that’s fine. It’s part of the program.’ It’s just a different style of learning, allowing them to take the lead on their own.”

The Art Detectives program has seven distinct crates with materials that teach kids about world cultures and history and technology and design. One of the newer additions to the curriculum is the STEAM crate, which stands for science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics. It’s packed with technological artifacts, including a rotary phone and a floppy disk. These items give students a sense of how rapidly technology is changing, and asks them to imagine where it might go in 10 years. The process sparks students’ imaginations. Thieneman remembers one student dreaming up a translator for animals.

“There’s always a story that’s connected to an object,” she said about teachers’ responses to the items in the STEAM crate. “It’s fascinating to me. Another way we can engage students and get them to talk to family or friends that are in a different generation is if they have context for something. ‘We just saw this rotary phone today. Did you have that?’”

Each item from a crate is set on a placemat, creating a station where two to four students gather to examine it for a few minutes. Students rotate, getting the chance to see and touch each item before moving on to the next. They are asked to guess where each object might be from, what it could have been used for, how it was made, and what materials it’s made of. After exploring, students get the chance to apply what they’ve learned with exercises that incorporate their creativity.

Title 1 schools (where 40% of students or more come from low-incomes homes) receive one day free, so as many as four classes can experience the program at no cost. In 2017, Art Detectives worked with students in 47 schools and 10 counties outside of Jefferson County (Adair, Barren, Boyle, Bullitt, Hardin, Henry, and Mercer (KY); Clark and Floyd (IN).

“This is our fifth year having them in our schools,” said Mary Arnold, who directs the elementary art programs for New Albany-Floyd County schools. “The opportunity that they bring to the schools is so incredibly unique.” Arnold writes Fund for the Arts grants to bring Art Detectives to the district.

One year, students had been learning about Salvador Dalí in class when they had the chance to see and handle one of the artist’s etchings. “When they finally figured out whose it was, they seriously felt like they were holding a million dollars.” It might seem like a risk to have children handling unique art objects, but given that trust, they rise to the occasion. “Our kids really feel like docents,” said Arnold.

Among the most popular crates is the Who We Are and What We Make crate. Arnold said students get a hands-on sense of history from handling grain baskets. They start by appreciating designs and patterns, but the process gets them asking questions. “It’s not just something pretty to look at. It was designed for a purpose.”

Arnold is also a parent, and when her daughter had the chance to participate in the program, she came home excited, full of stories about what she had done and what she had learned that day.

The seven crates are created for specific grade levels. Grades K-2 may explore the Who We Are and What We Make and Discover Africa crates. 3rd through 8th graders may access those two as well as Discover Europe, Discover Kentucky, Discover Native American Cultures, and STEAM. For high school students, there’s the Exhibition Design crate that gets students exploring what goes into an exhibition, and invites them to design their own.

Educators who want to bring the program to their own classrooms are asked to book at least 3 weeks in advance. Each student who experiences the program receives a family pass to visit the Museum free of charge. For more information about Art Detectives, visit