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Taking Your Kid To The Museum Doesn't Have To Be Miserable


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms and dads in your corner. Every week, we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy advice. Today we thought would be a good time to get some advice about spring break - some students are already on their break, for others it's a week or so away. So you're probably thinking about things to do, and you might have put a trip to the local museum on the your list and then you might have taken it off your list because you might've remembered a trip you had when you were a kid - it was boring, stuffy, expensive and you got yelled at all the time.

Well, that might be old news - many museums these days are making an effort to become more family-friendly. We'll talk about how to pick the right museum for your visit and how to make that visit a good one. Emily Korrell has thought a lot about this. She says she's been visiting the Smithsonian Museum since she was 4 years old. She's now an educator and a mom and so qualified to write her new book. She's the author of "Awesome Adventures at the Smithsonian: The Official Kids Guides for the Smithsonian Institution. Emily, thanks for joining us.

EMILY KORRELL: Hi, Michel. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Sheri Bernstein is also with us. She's vice president and director of education at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles - that's a museum and educational institution - and she's a mom of one. Sheri, thank you for joining us as well.

SHERI BERNSTEIN: It's great to be here.

MARTIN: And for additional perspective, we've also called Sheila Quirke. She's a blogger who writes "Mary Tyler Mom" for the ChicagoNow website, and she's raising two boys. Sheila, welcome to you. Thank you for joining us.

SHEILA QUIRKE: So happy to be here with you all.

MARTIN: And I think we should start with the pain, and then we can explain how it can be better. So, Sheila, as a mom you recently - tell us about the stroller incident that you had while visiting a Chicago museum. We'll call it the stroller-gate.

QUIRKE: The stroller-gate. It's so hilarious that I'm here talking about it because I actually refrained from blogging about the stroller incident because I didn't want to be, you know, that mom. But what happened was I went with my baby to a museum exhibit at the Field Museum in Chicago - womp-womp (ph) - and I was denied entrance with the stroller. So I didn't know that ahead of time and I was carrying a 20 pound, 6-month-old in a car seat - I didn't have my carrier with me - and the diaper bag, and it was said to me that strollers pose a safety concern. And honest-to-goodness, in that exhibit that day, were about two to three dozen other people and me lugging 42 pounds of baby and gear. And I just...

MARTIN: And you're a member, right? You're a member and you had had a whole conversation with the cashier about this and not one person said a word to you until you got to the exhibit, right? Is that...

QUIRKE: We chatted about the stroller downstairs when we were coming in. And - my, what a cute baby of course, yes, sweet baby, darling baby - and nobody mentioned that until literally walking into the exhibit itself. I was just taken aback because I've been taking children to museums since 2005. That particular day was about me. It wasn't about taking my kids to a museum, it was about me going to a specific exhibit that would interest me. My baby is portable at this point, he doesn't care what museum exhibits we see. So it was just sort of - discriminatory might be too strong a word, but it felt a little discriminatory against people caring for young children, babies specifically.

MARTIN: I hear you. Sheri, what about you? I know you're a museum administrator, but have you had a not so great experience as a parent trying to experience a museum?

BERNSTEIN: It's interesting, right. I was listening to Sheila and thinking I feel your pain, I have been in many a time, since I've had my daughter who's now 10, experiences where you think you're going to an institution that is welcoming and you get sort of a concerned look if your child has, you know, Cheerios with him or, you know, has to put their drink to the side, etc. And I do - I think what you're talking about, Sheila, is something that we are trying to get better at at museums - really learning how families act in the world. I mean, families in a way are their own cultural group, and they have their own needs. And it's something that I think we're growing as a field in getting - learning how to address.

MARTIN: I mean, anybody ever been mean to you? Sheri, I'm asking you to - show us your scars.

BERNSTEIN: Has anyone ever been mean to me? Oh, sure...

MARTIN: Have they ever been mean to you as - trying to access a museum?

BERNSTEIN: I can say, yes. I can say - but I'm not going to give any names - I've had experiences, you know, with security guards who might have had a long day and my child might not have been in the best mood, might have been hungry, and I sort of had, you know, gotten the idea that it was time to leave that gallery. So, yes, I would say so.

I would also say that at our institution - I had to laugh when I heard about the stroller incident because we had - I cannot tell you, when we were opening a new children's space called Noah's Ark at our institution, the number of meetings we had just about strollers and where to put them. We had committees ad nauseam on this, and I'll tell you it's a hugely important topic. So I can tell you that if you come to our museum, you're welcome to bring your stroller through the galleries. But it was a battle to fight internally to get that to happen.

MARTIN: Emily, did you ever feel - you were telling us that you've been going to the Smithsonian since you were 4, did anybody ever make you feel unwelcomed there?

KORRELL: I don't know that anyone's necessarily made me feel unwelcome. I remember, you know, as a 4-year-old, being terribly bored and, you know, looking for the nearest bench to lie down while my father would read all the, you know, plaques of information. But, you know...

MARTIN: But you clearly came to love it. Why do you think you love them so much?

KORRELL: Yeah. You know, my father's grand plan must've worked on me, you know. I don't know - yeah, I was started at the museums really young. And I think that's a great thing about taking kids to museums, you know, it's a great place to make memories. And yes, I joke about my father torturing me at the museums, you know. But I really do think that to, you know, take kids in to museums where they can engage with real objects and be inspired and their curiosity can be sparked, you know - those things matter and those things will make their mark and stick with kids.

MARTIN: You were telling us that one of the reasons you wanted to write this guide was not so much that you think kids are a little - if I could use this word - little hellions, but that you really - that they're bored. That they go to museums and they don't really know - you talked about how, you know, your dad would read all the plaques and he was one of those plaque-reader guys.


MARTIN: But that kids really don't know how to access the - how to really enjoy the experience or something like that. So tell us a little bit more about that.

KORRELL: Right, like the museums like the Smithsonians - they're so full of wonderful objects, but, you know, I've watched so many kids head into the museums and just almost instantly become overwhelmed. You know, it's just this stimulation overload. And, you know, as a teacher, I've worked for years trying to figure out ways to help make information accessible to kids and so that's what I was trying to do with "Awesome Adventures at the Smithsonian" - was to figure out, you know, think about how do kids think, how do they learn and what is a real simple way that I can gently guide kids to engage with what they're seeing at the museums?

And to me, you know, that's about thinking about how do kids learn, what are their learning styles, you know? Some kids like to read the plaques - probably very few - some kids like to be read to. Some kids like to draw what they're seeing, some kids like to ask questions and have conversations. Some kids like to be a leader and tell other people about what they're seeing. You know, there's so many ways to engage kids, but these aren't necessarily things that, you know, parents or other adults would necessarily think of.

MARTIN: Let me jump in for a minute and say if you're just joining us, it's our weekly parenting conversation. We're talking about how to create a kid-friendly museum experience. Our guests are Sheri Bernstein of the Skirball Cultural Center, Sheila Quirke - she blogs at "Mary Tyler Mom" - and Emily Korrell who wrote a kid's guide to the Smithsonian Institution.

So let's just back up for a minute and say, first of all, one of the reasons I don't think a lot of people appreciate the Smithsonian Institution is that it's free - I mean, at least for now. I mean, you can donate, there are ways to kind of support the museums - if you like, you can buy a membership. But it's free, you can kind of walk in and out at will. Most museums aren't like that, I mean, we have to remember that. So for a parent, the first thing they have to figure out is - is this going to be worth the money? What's the first thing - and I don't know, Sheri, do you want start here? How do you figure out if - particularly, if you're in a city that you're not familiar with - whether you should even bother trying to go to a certain museum, whether you should even try?

BERNSTEIN: You know, I think there's so much to be learned first from word-of-mouth, from people that you know who have been places. I take my recommendations from families in other cities really, you know, seriously. And going online and seeing if there is a section devoted to families and welcoming families. I'm noticing more and more that museums, including our own, have not just one offering but if you are a family - here are the things you can do, here are the ways you can use our space. So that's something that I think about. Also, looking for opportunities that are participatory, that are interactive, that are immersive. I think many, many families, for them, it will resonate, you know.

There are, as our last speaker was saying, so many different ways of engaging with objects - some people like to read, some people like to move around. Just like adults, children learn in all sorts of different ways. So having experiences where, for example, at our museum, we have a hands-on exhibition that is devoted to the story of Noah's Ark, and it has opportunities for people to go on a journey basically from storms where they make a storm with sound devices and using their bodies and light instruments to kind of building something with their hands to the actual ark and entering it and role-playing in the space, making things, I think, along with actually seeing objects, being able to engage with other family members and really be participating is a key part of it.

MARTIN: Sheila, what about you? What are some of the things you look for in deciding whether you're going to visit a museum or not?

QUIRKE: I think - we live in Chicago, and we're blessed with so many museum choices here. And I really appreciate what I'm hearing from Emily and Sheri here. As a mom of two kids trying to make museum choices, I think about my child specifically, more so than the museum itself, if that makes any sense. So I know my kid better than the museum does. And I can go online and see what the museum offerings are, and then look for that overlap between where my kids' interests and passions lie and what the museum is offering at any particular time.

MARTIN: Will they allow you to bring, say, crayons or something like that, if your child wants to sketch something? I often see artists sketching or older artists sketching. Will they allow younger people to do that?

QUIRKE: Oh, sure. I've never - I can't anticipate any issue in any of the museums that I've frequented with our children.

MARTIN: I can understand where some kid with a crayon is not something everybody's happy to see, especially - you see, I'm just saying. Emily, what about...

QUIRKE: Paper.

MARTIN: Right, right.

QUIRKE: Paper.

MARTIN: Paper, right. Emily, what about you? Obviously wrote a whole book about, you know, how to make the most out of the Smithsonian and you focus on the Air and Space Museum, the Museum of Natural History, the Museum of American History, which are certainly, you know, favorites for adults as well as family - so can you just give us a few tips - we have only about two minutes left - a couple of tips about how to engage your children once they're there? Do you do a lot of preplanning, for example, or what if you don't have enough time for that?

KORRELL: Yeah, I feel like if you are able to do some preplanning, that's always really helpful too. You know, get your hands on a guide, a kids guide - a lot of museums actually have their kid guides or small guides on their websites. But, you know, that's a great way to help kids in a sense develop a mission so that when they head into the museum they have something to look for. I think that can be a great start. And also I just want to encourage families that, you know, I think you need to go for quality over quantity when you're at museums with kids.

You know, don't try to see it all because that's just a sure way of wearing everyone out. But when you're in museums, there's a lot of ways to engage in just playing little games. Like, I was thinking on my way in to the studio this morning, you could play a game called bet you didn't notice. And that - you could take a look at, let's say, the right whale at the Natural History Museum and look for details with your kids. And you can just go back and forth saying - oh, I bet you didn't notice the whale's belly button, did you, you know or I bet you didn't notice those whiskers on that whale's chin - just as a way of connecting a bit more with an object of slowing down and looking a bit more closely because, you know, I'm sure everyone's seen families just rushing through these museums as a way of like, you know, just, like, we got to check it off our list and see everything. And I just really encourage families to slow it down.

MARTIN: Slow it down.


MARTIN: Good advice for all of us isn't it, right? Emily Korrell is author of "Awesome Adventures at the Smithsonian." She joined us from member station KQED in San Francisco. Sheri Bernstein of the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles joined us from NPR West, which is in Culver City, California. And Sheila Quirke, who blogs at "Mary Tyler Mom" for ChicagoNow, was with us from member station WBEZ in Chicago. Thank you all so much.

KORRELL: Thank you, Michel.

BERNSTEIN: Thank you so much.

QUIRKE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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