Whenever we head to a new city, my son scours the racks for museum pamphlets. His favorite are art museums—classics to contemp, followed by science and history. But even the obscure local hole-in-the-walls (Cable Car Museum, Stabler Leadbeater Apothecary Museum) pull him in. (We also tend to squeeze in a baseball or soccer game and tour of the local signature doughnut or ice cream hotspots. He is an 11-year-old boy, after all.)
My son isn’t a bookworm brainiac type. He’d rather read the latest Premier League trades and stats than pick up a novel, sadly. I can only assume his almost unnatural affinity for museums (he outdoes most grownups I know) stems from my having packed him in my carry-on since babyhood through the 30+ countries I’ve covered while writing for grownup mags, most of which involved multiple museums tours. Surrounded by adults fascinated by the subject matter, he never got fed the message that museums are “boring.” Start them young, if you can. If that ship has sailed, try these tips to wake their inner museum-lover.
1. See things from their perspective. Crowded galleries or busy hands-on exhibits where big kids park and don’t give way to little ones aren’t very much fun when you’re waist-high—the experience equates to a less-than-enthralling exhibit on pants pockets. Wait for dead times so your child is relaxed and at ease and can discover what excites them. Impressionist pieces from a distance, and then close up, might delight. Contemporary art museum works can have amazing impact when you let a little imagination in. Don’t slip into teacher mode; let them tell you the story of what they see.
2. Find exhibits they can relate to. If you have a Titanic buff, time your visit to when the touring exhibit comes through. Captain Jack fans will love an interactive shipwreck and pirate experience. Seeing classic works of art recreated in Lego-form will open their hearts to these masterpieces when they see the real deal. (We’ve seen all three at the Discovery Times Square, NYC.) Stack the deck, knowing they’ll dig one aspect of the trip. Spies, Harry Potter, King Tut; find their passion and you just created a positive memory of a museum experience and broke down the walls of resistance for the future.
3. Don’t assume they’ll only like “kid” stuff. Yes, if you’re hitting an art museum, you’ll probably want to suss out the mummy exhibit or collection of suits of armor. But don’t skip taking a pass through the traditional halls. (Many of the battle scenes are anything but dull!) Let them take the lead and stop at anything that looks interesting. They might love the bold contemporary works or might find the realism of some eras more satisfying. For a parent, it’s a learning experience about your child. My son created quite a scene at the Museo del Prado, when at 23 months he centered himself in front of an El Greco self portrait and refused to budge, threatening with a warning pre-shriek when I tried to move him along. He stared up at the painting for over 25 minutes as a crowd formed and giggled, until an employee ran to the museum shop and gifted him with a magnet bearing the rather dark and somewhat creepy piece. He finally left, grasping the treasure in his chubby little fingers.
4. Know your limits. Check local papers for the free days or evenings, or pick some of the many fabulous museums without admission so you don’t feel obligated to “get your money’s worth” and overextend your time. Keith Bellows, Editor-in-Chief of National Geographic Traveler, puts a reasonable 45-minute minimum on his family museum visits. This gives enough time for kids to get absorbed in a handful of things, without it turning into torture (for all involved) if they just aren’t interested or it’s an off day.
5. Make it interactive. Most museum have a special children’s booklet at the greeter desk, usually free and often with a scavenger hunt to add fun to the experience. Others offer Family Day classes, where experts guide kids and their parents in trying their hand at new art forms or teach about animals with hands-on demonstrations. History museums often present short skits, allowing volunteers from the audience to take part in recreating an event from the past. Let kids bring sketchbooks, or lend them your camera if photography is allowed, so they feel part of the experience.
6. End on a sweet note. Ciaran Blumenfeld swears by the ice cream finale for any cultural activity. “Kids will look at a lot of old stuff rather cheerfully if there is ice cream at the end of the trail.” But your sweet note need not be literal. If you’re not the spoonful-of-sugar type, it could be a trip to the park or a picnic on the museum grounds. Or perhaps a small trinket souvenir from the museum shop. Magnets are small and inexpensive and can be a cheerful* daily reminder of a great trip.
* El Greco magnets are not guaranteed to be cheerful.