Who better to give us the lowdown on getting the best from museums with kids than a mother who also happens to be a museologist? Jenni Fuchs has spent the last 15 years working in museums, from the Smithsonian to Berlin’s Staatliche Museen. She shares her tips and advice for enjoying museum trips without meltdowns.
As both a mother and someone who has worked in museums for many years, I am a great believer in taking children to museums from an early age. Both my boys saw the inside of their first museum when they were just a few weeks old. If we lead by example and show children that museums are places you want to go, not places you have to go, they will grow up to embrace them.
Some people say young children don’t belong in art museums, because they don’t understand the art. But you don’t need to understand art to appreciate or enjoy it (I’d have to stay away from many art museums myself if that were the case, because I don’t always understand it either!). What better place is there for children to learn what a circle or a square is, what blue or red or yellow are, than an art museum?
And maybe we need to reassess too what we mean by ‘learning’ in a museum. Many people still think this means being able to analyse a painting, internalise facts about history, or understand how science works. It can be that, and for older children it very often is. But it doesn’t have to be that narrowly defined. It can also be something as simple as learning to feel comfortable in a museum. Learning that it’s a place you can belong. A place you like going to. Learning that museums can be fun. In the end, if our children don’t learn those things, all those other types of learning don’t matter because they won’t want to come back.
Already I can see our love of museums rubbing off on our older son, who is now often the first to suggest a museum visit at the weekends. I get asked for advice by other parents, who are hesitant about taking their children to museums because they are worried they will be bored or run riot. While admittedly not every museum may be suitable for a family day out, there is a lot you can do to make your visit run more smoothly.
Here are my top 10 tips for getting most out of museums with kids:
- Adjust your expectations. Be realistic about what you’re going to see. That French Impressionist exhibition you’ve always wanted to spend some quality time in, enraptured by the audio guide and lingering at every piece? Well, now is not the time. Best to come back another day without your children. Don’t feel you have to see everything. Pick one area to spend some quality time in, instead of trying to race through the whole museum at once.
- Keep it short and sweet. Don’t overstay. When your children are done, they’re done. Pushing them any further will only end in tears (on both sides). You can come back another time and if they leave before having a meltdown it’s more likely to result in a happy experience that will make them keener to come back.
- Explore membership options. Most museums and galleries offer annual family memberships, which are a much more cost efficient way to come back for multiple short visits and make museum trips a regular family outing. Many also offer children’s event programs with activities, workshops and audio guides specifically for kids, all of which makes your job as museum guide a whole lot easier.
- Let your children be your guide and lead the way. It’s fun to see the museum through their eyes, as they pick out the things they’re interested in. That’s not to say you can’t also point out things you think they may enjoy – a little time spent on the museum’s website beforehand identifying a good route or a few particularly interesting exhibits will pay dividends.
- Think about time of day. Go at the time of day that works best for your family’s routine. First thing in the morning museums tend to be quieter and children often have better concentration and more energy than at the end of the day. But if your children are on best form after lunch and a nap, go then.
- Make sure your children are well fed. It sounds obvious but remember to take mealtimes into account. Many museums don’t allow you to eat or drink inside, but I always bring some water and (surreptitious) snacks too, just in case. Most museums and gallery cafes are very family-friendly and make a good way to break up a trip.
- Locate the loos! On your arrival, find out where the loos are so that you can dash back when you need them. Also, if there are lockers or a cloakroom, check in your coats so you don’t get hot and bothered or end up having to carry them all.
- Engage them in what they are seeing. Set yourselves some little games or challenges, e.g. naming, finding or counting certain things. A round or two of ‘I-spy’ always works well. With older children, ask questions to start a discussion, ‘What do you think the people in the picture are saying to each other?’, or, ‘How do you think this works?’. If your children enjoy drawing, bring a sketchbook and pencil to let them capture what they see.
- Be prepared for repetition. There will be those museums you visit just once, and those you will visit again and again because your child wants to go and see his or her favourite car or dinosaur. Both are okay.
- Think outside the box. Everyone knows kids love dinosaurs, mummies, and rockets, but don’t just stick to the usual suspects. Try taking them to other museums too – you may be pleasantly surprised.
Need some inspiration? Read our guide to the 10 Best Museums in Europe for Kids.
Jenni Fuchs has been working in museums for over fifteen years, and writes the popular blog Museum Diary in her free time. Her earliest memory of visiting a museum is spending Sunday afternoons at the National Museum of Scotland with her parents, aged 5. She lives in Berlin, is mother to two boys (aged 1 and 5), and can usually be found visiting yet another museum with her family at the weekend. Find Jenni on Twitter @jennifuchs