Berlin has several children’s museums, but I have to confess we’ve never been to any of them. I think it’s fantastic that children’s museums exist, and I greatly appreciate their value, but given the option I prefer to take my son to ‘regular’ museums because I want him to learn to love them as much as I do. And I think it’s never too early to start. I’ve been taking my son to museums since he was just a few weeks old. By the time he turned one, he had visited more than 20 different museums in four different countries. Now, at two and a half, he gets excited when I mention we’re going to a museum, and sometimes even asks for it himself when we’re deciding what to do at the weekend (“Museum!”)
Of course we have our favourites – cars & planes, dinosaurs & animals always go down a treat – and we do tend to gravitate to museums that are family friendly, e.g. the National Museum of Scotland does a wonderful job at catering to the under 3s, something I wish more ‘regular’ museums would embrace, but we’re game for anything. Well, perhaps not anything (so probably the title of this post should have read “take them almost everywhere”). Just as I wouldn’t let me son watch television programmes that weren’t appropriate for his age, I wouldn’t take him to museums that had exhibits inappropriate for his age, e.g. depicting violence or adult rated content, but other than that I’m pretty open. Sometimes people are surprised at the kinds of museums I take my son to, and I will be the first to admit that not all of those visits are a success, but I hold fast in the belief that children can enjoy almost any museum if adults take the time to engage with them.
One example I’ve mentioned again and again is from my time as an audience researcher at the National Museum of Scotland, when we were evaluating an exhibition on Pixar’s artworks. Two visitor responses vividly stuck in my mind: one from a parent who felt the exhibition was not appropriate for her 5-year old son because there were no hands-on activities to entertain him, and the other from a parent who said he and his 3-year old daughter had really enjoyed going round the exhibition together, spotting characters from the movies they had watched together at home. Engagement.
And so it happens that alongside the animals at the Museum für Naturkunde and the cars at the Deutsches Technikmuseum, my son counts the Jewish Museum Berlin and the Berlinische Galerie (a museum of modern art, photography and architecture) among his favourites. Because we live next to them, we visit often, he’s become familiar with them, and he is usually the first these days to instigate a visit. Not the usual suspects on your standard ‘Berlin Museums for Kids’ list, and yet he takes great joy e.g. in walking around the galleries at the Berlinische Galerie, looking for things he recognises in the art works – cars, animals, a man wearing a hat – or puzzling over things that don’t seem right to him, like a man with three legs or a pig suspended from the ceiling. And not only that, but he takes great joy in pointing them out to me, proudly showing off his discoveries, eager for my reactions, my confirmation, my praise. Engagement.
During our recent visit to Washington, D.C., we took our son to see the animals at the Natural History Museum and the planes at the Air and Space Museum. We took him to play in the children’s galleries at the Building Museum and the Museum of the American Indian. But we also took him to look at contemporary art at the Hirshhorn Museum. It’s great for a little boy just learning his colours. A gallery on Level 3, for example, showed bold, block coloured works by American artist Ellsworth Kelly bearing titles such as ‘Red Yellow Blue V’, ‘Red White’ or ‘Dark Green Curve’. Whilst we were there a group of pre-school children, about 3 or 4 years old, arrived and settled down in a semi-circle in front of some paintings to talk about colours and shapes with their teachers. They were buzzing with excitement.
If you want your kids to grow up to enjoy and appreciate museums, please, take them early, take them often, and take them (almost) everywhere. We’ve been to see everything from natural history, science and technology, to archaeology, world cultures and social history, to applied art, fine art and modern art. Yes, sometimes it’s difficult when you’re maybe not particularly made to feel welcome, to ignore the museum guard following you around like you’re some of kind of criminal or the feeling everyone around you is thinking “she should have taken her kids to the children’s museum” – but give those museums a reason to want to be family friendly by showing them families want to visit too!