The Art Of Scaring Children: A Tokyo Museum Turns Haunted House

The Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo spooks its younger visitors to get into art–in all its gory.

Haven’t you always thought that the Mona Lisa was a little creepy, her hesitant grin a little too knowing? What about the grimacing cherubs that populate Dutch Golden Age portraiture? Or worse, Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro nightmares? Tokyo-based Torafu Architects has collected such works with the potential to spook for a Haunted Play House installation at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo (MOT).


The project, conceived for the museum’s annual summer children’s exhibition, drops an austere cubic volume in the center of a gallery. The walls are lined with re-creations of famous portraits, including by Vermeer and Arcimboldo, that the architects deemed more than a little unnerving. The effect, says Torafu principal Minaho Sakane, turns the gallery into “a spooky hall of portraits.”

As one walks around the installation, especially if that one is a child, the museumgoer progressively gets the feeling that things are slightly off. The surprised expression worn by Caravaggio’s Boy Bitten by a Lizard as he recoils from the bloodthirsty reptile appears a bit too lively. The disturbing rictus worn by the young girl in Judith Leyster’s A Boy and a Girl with a Cat and an Eel oscillates. And did the van Eyck just wink?

Yes on all accounts. The portraits are manipulated–sometimes subtly, other times not–by children behind the scenes. Small portals proportioned to the heights of young ones grant them access to the heart of the installation. Once inside, they can scramble from painting to painting and peer through the eyes of the ghostly frozen personages depicted on the other side of the wall. They can rotate a subject’s head or even replace it with their own.

“It is important for children to go inside of the frame, which they can’t do in a normal museum,” Sakane tells Co.Design. “Of course, they can’t even touch the frame usually.”

The children are encouraged to go wild, and they do. Their excited shrieks and hurried whispers may ruin the surprise, but no one seems to mind. Kids dart back and forth from “backstage” to the display side to see friends insert themselves into the paintings. They laugh and then swap places.

The eeriness of the place is broken, and the masters are turned into bobbing heads. Go ahead and stretch Mona Lisa’s smile, the invisible guard in the corner won’t stop you.

About the author

Sammy is a writer, designer, and ice cream maker based in New York. He once lived in China before being an editor at Architizer.