Taking children to museums can be hit or miss, with advance planning usually the key to making the most of a visit. In particular, it really helps to check out venues’ websites in advance, for details of special family events, children’s tours, audio-guides or activity trails (sometimes the latter are downloadable from the website before you even leave home).
Museums in the UK are becoming ever more family friendly, largely as a result of the Kids in Museums campaign set up by Take the Family contributor Dea Birkett after her young son was ejected from the Royal Academy in London for shouting at a statue. The campaign manifesto highlights the need, among other things, for family tickets for families ‘of all shapes and sizes’.
Larger museums usually have excellent and fun educational programs, often run on a drop-in basis and usually free too, or carrying a nominal fee. That said, the following tips should help you to enjoy yourselves in any museum, however small and poorly equipped.
• Do your research. These days museums run everything from sleepovers and re-enactments to puppet shows, drawing competitions and computer simulations. Follow your favourite venues on networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook to be given a heads-up on upcoming events and programs.
• Avoid bank and school holidays where possible, and if you do visit at a busy time, seek out some of the more obscure corners and lesser-known exhibits of the venue, returning to the popular highlights an hour or so before closing, when the crowds have thinned out.
• Visit the gift shop first! This might sound like the advice of a philistine, but you’ll find that it stops the incessant cries of ‘When can we go and buy something?’. Also, you might buy a postcard from the shop and play ‘hunt the picture’ in the museum (best of all, give different kids different postcards and make it a competition).
• Devise a treasure hunt. Most children hate it when adults parrot the label to them or explain everything they know about the painter/painting/object. Ask instead if they can find 12 birds in the room or six pipes (if it’s Surrealist art), or anything you can see from your first few minutes in the room.
• Bring a pad of paper and encourage children who like to draw to sit and sketch anything they find interesting. Those who don’t may enjoy writing a quiz for the rest of you to do, based on objects in the museum.
• Use ‘out of the box’ questions in overwhelming places such as the British Museum in London. Ask detailed questions that get kids to notice things they may not otherwise remark upon, such as ‘What is this made of?’, ‘Why did they use that material?’, ‘Why is it that colour?’ … The idea is to get kids involved.
• In larger museums, let older kids loose with the map, picking places and sending the kids to find them, asking them to choose the route they take and find two things they like in each room they pass, then write a couple of things about them. When you all meet (after you’ve had a couple of minutes to look at things you like) they act as tour guides, steering you around and explaining their chosen objects.
• Don’t underestimate audio-guides – putting headphones on some kids lulls them into a semi-hypnotic state where they will follow the instructions on their guides for seemingly hours around a museum. I took a child round a National Trust property once and he listened to an obscure voice lecturing him about church interiors for more than an hour in a dreamy, delighted trance.
• Accept that children do not enjoy archaeological museums. They’ll like the mummies, but it’s very difficult to get them enthused about broken pots and old coins. If you really have to take them, then read up on the Greek/Roman etc legends and try to enthuse them with the stories while looking at the pots (if you’re lucky they might have done them at school and be able to tell you the stories).
• Let the children lecture you about what they know – it always works better than vice versa.
• Take plenty of breaks, and find an open space where the kids can run around pretending to hit each other with Roman spears or the like.
Read Dea Birkett's guide to 20 family-friendly British museums you may not have heard of.