Thursday, January 06, 2011

Kids and Museums

When we started having children, I wanted to raise them to be culturally literate and artistically sensitive: they would know Impressionism from Cubism and have an opinion about each. So, we started taking them along to museums when they were still in the Snuggli.

I had the naive idea that these early visits would mean they would grow up loving museums. The truth was a little more complex. When they were little and I suggested a museum visit, reactions would range, depending on their moods, from outright whining to eye rolling to mild interest. But the truth is that I like museums, so we kept going to them.

When my kids reached high school age (um, late high school), they sometimes suggested museum visits on their own! and went to museums with their friends without me! One of my children even wrote a college application essay about how wonderful museums are and how much our family loves them! And now when they come home to visit, going to museums is one of the activities they suggest. So I guess our strategy worked--just with a little more pain and complaining along the way than I had imagined.

I thought about this again this week as we were traveling in central Europe. Several museums were on the agenda (suggested by older siblings!) and the little ones' responses ranged from outright whining to eye rolling (didn't quite make it to mild interest). Still, once we were in the museums, the little ones perked up. Hopefully things are percolating up there in their heads and someday they'll realize they actually do like museums (and possibly become culturally literate and artistically sensitive along the way).

Over the years, we have developed a few simple rules for making museum visits generally successful (no guarantees about the prevention of whines or eye-rolls, however). I'm assuming an art museum here, but these rules are applicable to history museums and places like aquariums, too. Here they are:

1. Go early or go late.
Almost without exception, our least successful museum trips have been when we arrive between 11:00 AM and 2:00 PM. That's when everyone else who slept in arrives, crowding things. It's also right at lunchtime. Get to the museum right when it opens or go late in the day. Crowds are thinner and you're not competing with food for your kids' interest.

2. Keep it short.
My rule of thumb is that we never stay in a museum more than two hours. Some trips we have gotten completely absorbed in what we were doing and stayed much, much longer, but we never plan to. Sometimes two hours is about an hour too long. I love museum memberships so that I don't feel guilty about paying admission and then leaving while everyone is still happy.

3. Do what you want.
If you are enthusiastic about what you are seeing, that's what your kids will end up remembering: they'll remember your goofy smile and the little dance you did in front of that one painting and not that they had just asked you for the sixtieth time when they could get a drink of water. You don't have to convince them to be enthusiastic. Just emote away.

4. Do what they want.
Of course, it also helps to think about things from their perspective. Some of the standard tricks up my sleeve:
  • Pose like the painting.
  • Have everyone choose their favorite thing in a room and then walk around looking at everyone's favorites.
  • Look for all the animals or children or toys you can find.
  • Bring sketching materials. (Sometimes museums will allow only pencils, so be sure to have a few sharpened ones in case your markers or paints or crayons get the evil eye from the museum guard.) Find a place to sit and let them stay there sketching as long as they want. You should try it too--it's really fun!
  • Find a place for them to sit down. Most museums don't mind if you sit on the floor, so flop down with them if the benches are full. You may first sit down just because little legs are tired, but the longer you sit in front of one thing, the more you usually see in it.
  • It's tough to do if you're a tourist, but if you're local, check out what programs the museum offers specifically for children. When we lived in D.C. thirteen years ago, our children did a series of Saturday programs at the Smithsonian's Asian Art Museum that they still talk about in great detail--what art they saw, what activities they museum staff had them do. And they're still free, just like they used to be.
5. Go again.
First visits to museums are fun, but on the second and third visits, the museum starts to belong to you. You can have your kids be the tour guides, each showing you one favorite thing. Of course, if you're an out-of-town tourist, you can't very well just bop in for another visit. To achieve something close to another visit, go to the museum bookstore before you go into the museum (a great thing to do while leaving your spouse waiting in long ticket lines) and buy a picture book about the museum or some postcards of things in their collection. Speed-read the book, and as you go through the museum, especially point out the pieces featured in your new book. (Of course, if you, unlike me, are really organized and are going to a big famous museum, you can order a book from Amazon. Or you can look through children's art books and check the credits to see where the paintings are from.) Then, back at home (or in trains or planes), visit the museum again and again by looking at the book.

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