Museums Can Be Fun

museum

One of my first art-museum visits as an adult was to the Louvre. I’d assumed I’d find formally clad, somber-looking grown-ups treading silently through the galleries but was delighted to encounter convivial patrons soaking up the atmosphere. Many were teens who casually spread themselves out on the floor, giddily appreciating the artworks.

The scene hardly resembled a kiddie birthday party, but neither was it a replay of my third-grade museum field trip (take that, Mrs. Wilson). This was my first clue that museums don’t have to be stodgy catacombs. Now that I have two children of my own, I’ve become all the more heartened by recent efforts of traditional institutions to court youngsters with special programs and activities.

Defining the Experience

The dictionary defines a museum as “a building or place where works of art, scientific specimens, or other objects of permanent value are kept and displayed,” but children’s museums are giving the concept a new twist.

Display cases at most kids’ museums read “Please Touch” instead of the opposite. And interactive wonderlands like the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, California, are no longer merely tolerant of the younger generation, but embrace youthful curiosity wholeheartedly, creating combination play and exhibition spaces where families can simultaneously learn and blow off steam.

Happily, traditional institutions are developing programs specifically for kids and creating spaces that simultaneously whet the artistic appetites of parents and their progeny.

As a staffer at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, puts it, “We’re getting away from the whole hallowed-halls thing.”

Museum as Family Hangout

The MFA, as it’s known to Beantown locals, is a stellar example of a museum that does double duty as highbrow entertainer and family hangout.

No matter when you visit, you’re likely to see children roaming the galleries with sketchpads and pencils, reproducing the works of the masters. The museum hosts weekend family workshops and an after-school program. A pamphlet available all the time turns the museum into a scavenger hunt.

Los Angeles’s Getty Center is similarly outfitted. You can rent audio players with special child-oriented tours. Gallery Games, available in the museum’s impressive Family Room, present new ways to explore the collection, such as the Art Kits, which kids take into the galleries to create their own artworks.

Particularly ingenious is the dress-up activity. Throw on a costume, pose in front of a backdrop, and then (after removing the togs!) venture into the museum to find the painting with similarly bedecked models.

Across town, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art has the 10,000-square-foot Boone Children’s Gallery, where kids create art projects or play with computers and scientific gizmos. Museums all across the country have followed suit with programs, workshops, and meet-the-artist events for kids.

Do-It-Yourself Programs

Not every museum courts children directly, but that doesn’t mean you can’t go it alone. Many museums, even those without children’s programs, will allow you to bring in sketching equipment. The rule is usually that you may use dry media only (e.g., pencils or charcoal, not paint) with sketch pads that are 14×17 or 16×20 inches maximum.

You should call ahead and ask what’s permitted, though, lest your child’s Winnie-the-Pooh pad and pencil be confiscated.

A Few Tips

Dress comfortably. Fancy dress-up clothes aren’t necessary unless you’re attending a benefit soiree (in which case you probably won’t be bringing the kids). Even most venerable museums are relaxed these days. The more comfortable the kids are, the better your chances they’ll want to stick around.

Choose one gallery at a time. If you’ll be attending a large museum, pick a theme, such as a particular type of art, or animals, or “people I’d like to meet.” At a science or natural-history museum, instead of spending an entire afternoon, breeze in just to enjoy the dinosaurs or preserved bugs.

Bring an informed audience. Teach the kids a little something about an artist. My daughter’s enthusiasm for a recent museum visit was sparked by James Mayhew’s Katie Meets the Impressionists, a picture book about a girl who jumps into a Renoir.

Pick up a book. Many museums publish children’s guides with tidbits and trivia to get kids thinking about art by asking questions. Some of these are free at the entrance; others are available for purchase in the museum shop.

Play the advance man. Familiarizing yourself with a museum’s collection ahead of time will help you target your visit to the things you think your children will like best. If you’re going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, for example, it would be a bonus to know about the Costume Institute, a favorite with many kids.

Go online. Before you visit a museum, check out its Web site. In addition to general information, many sites have online exhibits and activities designed to intrigue children before they even set foot in the actual establishment. Current online displays at the Tech Museum include spiffy ones about robotics and Mt. Everest.

Know when to quit. As my colleague Emily Emerson, author of Fodor’s Around Paris with Kids, wrote about the Louvre, “Just because the world’s most famous museum is filled with priceless treasures doesn’t mean that kids will like it.” Give your museum visit your best shot. If the experiment sputters, you can always return when the kids are older.

Remember that art is what you make it. If painting or sculpture doesn’t suit your kids, you still have alternatives. In Los Angeles, the Museum of Neon Art celebrates commercial and artistic uses of neon lighting. San Francisco’s Cartoon Art Museum, which is in the process of relocating, is a hoot (though be warned that not all the exhibits are appropriate for kids). And the Museum of Bad Art, near Boston, pays homage to the worst the art world has to offer.

Dare to be different. Want something really different? Bunny Museum in Los Angeles claims to have the world’s largest collection of rabbit-inspired treasures. The Mount Horeb Mustard Museum, in Wisconsin, contains more than 3,000 types of prepared mustard. Then there’s the pride of Alamo Heights, Texas: the Toilet Seat Art Museum.

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