Children in the museum

Today Deb and I decided to go Boise museuming. This is easy when there are three museums in one cluster, just across from the main library (which is itself quite nice). We were disappointed to find the Idaho Black History Museum closed on weekdays, but the Boise Art Museum was definitely open. I think both of us had hoped for more paintings and less sculpture, but it is a nice, genteel, sedate place with many exhibits and sights to take in.

I’m congenitally weak in the area of visual art, and I know it. Most of the time, I have not the faintest notion of what I’m supposed to be grasping from what I see. Doesn’t matter. To me what’s important is that we have an art museum to visit, because I believe the arts provide valuable social comment and food for thought. Whether or not I ‘get it’ means nothing; I just like that we have one, evidently thriving, and what it says about our community.

Then we went to the Idaho Historical Museum, which only had about twenty kids but they sounded like fifty. They ran around, squealed, played with the playable exhibits, and generally acted like the first-graders I believe they were.

My reaction? Hurrah.

Yes, hurrah. Yes, me who normally has scant patience for children (or childish adults).


Here is the logic: I love museums. I have always loved museums. Like many history majors, I also think long-term. The desired end result is that the children associate museums with fun and happiness, because that will tend to grow into lifelong affection and support for museums. A museum already teaches them some things even at young, attention-span-impaired ages, and later it will teach them more.

When I look at the girl intrepidly trying to balance the load of her Lewis & Clark canoe, I don’t see a child. I see an archaeologist in her forties who will dream of locating and excavating Tell Akkad, and who will be well equipped to do so because she happens to read Akkadian cuneiform. And it probably all began in a museum, where she went home happy because she liked it, and kept returning as she grew to adulthood, deepening her appreciation each time, causing her to continue asking if the family could stop at museums in its travels.

When I look at the boy playing cowboy on the McClellan saddle, I don’t see a child. I see a distinguished professor of American Literature teaching undergrads to appreciate Faulkner and Twain, wearing his eccentric bow tie and engaging his class with hilarious dry wit. It began in museums, where he came to love knowledge and to value the past, and always went home feeling that it had been great fun, and can we go to more museums?

I look at the shy girl gazing upon the mining display, and I don’t see a child. I see a rangy thirtysomething geologist in jeans, developing a better way than fracking to get access to mineral resources. It all started in a museum, where she looked upon the mineral samples and wanted to know what was in them, in between playing with the stuff that’s put there for kids to play with. And went home happy, loving all museums and asking Daddy when they could go again, and could they also try some gold panning? What’s in that rock, Daddy?

All hinges upon the result obtained in youth: the museum was fun, the museum was happy, the museum was interesting. It could all be blighted away by one grouchy stare or admonition from an adult who ought to be acting more like the adult. Museums’ survival depends upon raising children to love museums, and anyone incapable of seeing that–or who thinks his or her tranquility is more important than that fundamental purpose of a museum–has missed the entire point of the exercise. Museums are not restaurants, where people spend $30-90 and have a right to expect that people either parent their children or not bring them, unless they’re prepared to pay for the meals of everyone whose experiences their kids disrupted. Museums are places where children’s dreams begin. If you love history and revere its study, a covey of children enjoying the museum is sweet music.

Hurrah for children in museums. Send some more. I hope that every time I visit one, I hear children’s joy.


6 thoughts on “Children in the museum”

  1. We have quite a few great museums here, but one in particular is specifically designed toward Science in all its forms and teaching kids about it. It used to be called The Omniplex, now it’s simply the Science Museum. There is a Planetarium, and more hands on exhibits on subjects as varied as American Indian history, Archeology, Aeronautics, Weather, and Physics etc. than a child could possibly experience in one trip. Both of my nephews love the Science Museum and can’t wait to go again as soon as they have walked out the doors toward the cars. Yes, engaging kids early in an appreciation of history of all forms as well as an appreciation of learning and how those two are intricately entwined is essential. And watching that spark come alive in their eyes, and that curiosity blossom exponentially when encouraged to do so, it’s simply magical to behold.


    1. Those are some of our best places, Sarah, I agree. There is one here we have not yet visited, but I hope it’s full of children experiencing new knowledge at an age where it will not be forgotten until they get at least past my age. Sounds like a marvelous gem you have there!


  2. We are incredibly lucky to have Chicago’s many museums at our fingertips. I have always loved watching the kids at museums, but once I had my kid I had a new appreciation. My son loved museums, so we always had a membership to one of the museums every year and changed it to another museum for we could really explore. Don’t know if it will turn out that his career was influenced by those visits, but I know it helped create fun, learning experiences for him. Bless those all those people who smiled at my kid, who answered his questions, who guided him to the next exhibit. They weren’t always employees of the museum, sometimes they were other guests who enjoyed watching my kid learn and have fun in the process.


    1. Debbie, that is exactly how I find myself. I was explaining mountain goats to a youngster, and as a rule, any time a child is staring in awe, it’s time for an elder to pass on a little bit of interpretation. It takes a village–and the museum is part of the village. You are indeed lucky and I’m so glad you all take full advantage of it!


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