Say the word "museum" and I start to salivate. My 10-year-old daughter, on the other hand, has an almost allergic response. Like many parents, I strive to provide my child with meaningful cultural encounters in the world, but sometimes it's difficult.

So it was with some trepidation that our family embarked to the Smithsonian's recently renovated Renwick Gallery to see the exhibition "WONDER," a show consisting of 10 over-sized works. The museum, which is beautiful and ornate, evokes a sense of wonder as it invites visitors to explore contemporary crafts and decorative art.

Pushes Us Out of Our Every Day

As curator Nicholas Bell remarks, "Museums are places where we can go to be reminded of how small we are, how we're simply a small portion of a very large universe. The Renwick Gallery is designed specifically to make you feel smaller. It's a level of drama that hints at an effort to somehow push us out of the every day."

"WONDER" does just that. Dwarfed by the immense proportions of the Second Empire Style building, and the disparate yet equally imposing artworks, visitors experience a reaction to the exhibition that is at turns startling, sensuous and awe-inspiring. The exhibition juxtaposes a handful of works by leading contemporary artists with different sensibilities. However, they all place a premium on the creative process and on incorporating everyday objects in unexpected and intriguing ways.

In trying to figure out the answers to basic questions - what these artworks are made of and how and why they were created - my daughter and I were captivated. Apparently, we're not the only ones.

Asking the Big (And Small) Questions

Carol Wilson, the museum's chair of education, notes, "Younger children (ages 3, 4, 5) have tended to respond more physically. They may have a different response than a child who's a bit older, maybe 6 or 7, who has a better concept of time and numbers. For those kids, they're asking 'How long did it take to make this?' 'How many marbles were used in this sculpture?' 'Why is this tree in the gallery?' We hear tweens and teenagers say 'Oh wow, this is so cool!' - and they're able to share it with others through social media, whether it's taking selfies in front of some of the objects or just snaping photographs taken from interesting angles and sharing them on Instagram."

What makes "WONDER" so, well, wonderful? The artists featured in the exhibition - Jennifer Angus, Chakaia Booker, Gabriel Dawe, Tara Donovan, Patrick Dougherty, Janet Echelman, John Grade, Maya Lin and Leo Villareal - all help us see things anew. While working in different media, they consider the possibility in everyday objects, including insects, tires, embroidery thread, index cards, twigs, netting, recycled wood, marbles and LED lights.

Superb craftsmen, their art compels visitors to consider the merits of spending countless hours transforming mundane materials. Their values seem foreign in our digital, instantaneous, results-oriented Information Age, but the exhibition gives us pause.

An Immersive Experience

In addition to the materials and the manner in which the art is created, the works are three-dimensional and immersive. Visitors of all ages delight in walking completely around, through and under the installations, finding different vantage points to experience the art. Indeed, the strength of "WONDER" is its leveling effect on all age groups. With no overt context to the exhibition, no narrative or prescribed route through the galleries, visitors are free to roam the building and explore its contents.

"Kids and adults are experiencing the exhibition in similar ways, which is what is unusual about it," Bell comments. "I see grownups playing and paying so much attention to the art and their surroundings that some of the guardedness is being dropped and they're acting a little childlike. I couldn't ask for a more profound or more rewarding response. They're having fun, and that may sound trite, but I think we've forgotten that museums can be fun."

My daughter particularly enjoyed lying down on the floor to view "1.8," by Janet Echelman. In looking up at the immense woven sculpture that spans the Renwick's Grand Salon, we both felt the palpable sensation similar to stargazing, the wonder of being a small, insignificant and vulnerable part of the universe.

The artist drew inspiration from a multi-colored map representing the energy released by the catastrophic 2011 Tōhoku earthquake, a natural disaster so powerful it shifted the earth on its axis, shortening the day it occurred by 1.8 microseconds. As I lay there, I contemplated the power of nature, and tried to imagine the 100-plus foot waves of the ensuing tsunami that measured at least the length of the gallery. My daughter and I found the other works in the exhibition, in which artists likewise challenged perceptions of reality, equally affecting.

Curiosity Leads to Discovery

With this exhibition, the Renwick reintroduces us to the outmoded concept of wonder and the power of object and place to move us. "Wonder leads to curiosity, which leads to discovery and learning. For children, the key to exciting their learning is to get them curious about something," Wilson concludes. "If you're bringing kids to the Renwick and they're really entranced by these objects, to extend that by taking them to any other museum, parents can just start by saying 'What do you see?'"

Taking a cue from our kids in being open to the wonder that exists all around us is crucial, Bell explains. "What I've learned from my kids is that things don't need to be rare to be special. If we can be reminded of that and pay more attention to our children - who don't have our filters and don't have our jaded response to the world - there's a lot of value there."

"WONDER" is on view at the Renwick Gallery through July 10, 2016.


Meg Maher is a writer based in Washington, D.C. She produced humanities exhibitions at the New York Public Library for ten years.