Making the Most of Museum Visits
World-class art or dazzling science displays are
sometimes no match for that special fatigue that
accompanies some museum visits. Even the most
curious kids can fall prey to dreaded “museum
syndrome,” as any parent will tell you. So what can
parents do to make the most of museum visits?
For suggestions, we spoke with Katherine Neill Ridgley,
a senior staff member of the Smithsonian Institution’s
Visitor Information department in Washington, D.C.
Ridgley shared her insights—gleaned from 17 years on
the job and her own experience as an aunt and a grandparent:
What’s the most common advice you offer
Have a game plan and pick things that kids can relate
to. The first thing I ask people is, “What are your
children interested in?” You don’t want to lose a child’s
attention the minute they walk in the door. So find out
what they are interested in—whether it’s dinosaurs,
rocks, aircraft, gardening, or history—and plan from
What should adults keep in mind when browsing
Don’t assume children are going to understand what
they’re looking at. You need to explain exhibits to them
in terms that they can relate to.
If they’re seeing a dinosaur for the first time, you might
say, “You know the character Barney the purple
dinosaur? Well this is the original. This is how dinosaurs
really looked. Scientists don’t know if they were purple.
Maybe they were. But we don’t know that.”
Talk to kids. It’s your job to educate them, as well as to
be a companion in the museum.
What types of exhibits appeal most to kids?
Interactive, hands-on exhibits are really big: things
kids can feel and touch or that they can relate to and
find later in their own backyard—like insects, fish,
snakes, or special plants.
What’s the best way to structure a day?
Break up your visit. Schedule snack time. Let kids run
off excess energy outside for a while. At the
Smithsonian we have an outdoor carousel that is
popular with adults and children. The key is to plan
some play activities in addition to the learning.
Any parting advice?
Don’t underestimate kids. You’d be surprised what
they’re interested in and pick up on.
Generate interest ahead of time. Read bedtime
stories about subjects you will explore later in a
Plan a scavenger hunt. Stop in at the museum gift
shop and buy postcards of exhibits in the museum’s
collection. Then track them down.
Check the museum’s Web site to learn about fun,
hands-on family activity offerings. Schedule your