Summer, Vatican City, a 4-year-old, a 2-year-old and us. Some called us brave, others weren’t so polite. We had spent the morning exploring the various Vatican museums and things were going well. Until we entered St Peter’s Basilica.
The space was breathtaking, and the hushed reverence as you walked through the doors, even on a busy day, could be felt by most people admiring the awe-inspiring works of art.
Michelangelo’s Pietá was particularly moving and as we stood gazing at the intricate detail, our daughters became bored and started playing their latest game – Zombie.
How do you play Zombie? Picture a cute little girl with her pink dress pulled up over her head, arms outstretched, walking after her sister like a horror movie zombie, loudly proclaiming that she is after her brains.
Not our finest moment as a family, but it didn’t stop us taking our girls to museums and galleries throughout Europe and at home.
Children are curious and want to learn. And every experience they have, whether they remember it or not, helps them become balanced kids who are inquisitive about, and aware of, the world around them.
Here are some tips we’ve learned, about visiting museums and galleries:
Just take them
Whether it’s your local town’s history museum, a visiting Egyptian exhibition, or the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame, take your children to interesting events and exhibitions every opportunity you get.
The more they visit, the more they’ll learn museum etiquette (like when to play Zombie and when not to), and the more they’ll appreciate art, history, world events, sport and music.
Engage with your children while you are exploring. If they’re just following you around, they’ll get bored.
Ask them which painting in the room is their favorite and why; ask them how the sculpture makes them feel; encourage them to ask questions about the context, background or meaning of something.
Don’t worry if you don’t know the answers, tell them you’ll look it up together when you get home.
Do your research
Most galleries or museums have too much in them to really examine each piece, and, let’s be honest, you’re not going to be interested in everything that’s there. Research what your chosen museum/gallery has on display and plan your visit around what you and your children will find most interesting.
Proper research allows for: 1. making sure you get to see the pieces you want to; 2. effective time management on how much time to spend where; 3. preparing your children for what they’ll see and why it’s cool; 4. giving you some info that might be useful when fielding their questions.
Make it fun
While doing your research you will find an endless list of interesting facts and stories. It’s not that difficult to use these to make activities for your kids.
Anything from a simple Bingo-type tick-off list, questions they need to find the answers to, to a scavenger hunt through the museum, will enhance their experience. (When a King Tut exhibit came to our hometown, we found out the hieroglyphics for “Tutankhamun”, and went searching for it all over the sarcophagi.)
And, lastly, never underestimate the power of stories. If you can tell them the story, even the most boring of paintings is interesting.
Teach them etiquette
While making it fun and interesting and letting kids explore, there is a minimum etiquette standard that children need to be taught and parents need to enforce as far as possible.
We all have Zombie moments with our children, but for the most part if you can keep them from running wild and shouting you’ll be okay. The main focus of museum etiquette? Protect the displays and be considerate of the other visitors.
Lastly, plan well
If you’re on holiday in a new city, look for museum passes that allow you to jump the queues (a three-hour wait to get in is not going to give you the best start to your visit.) If there are multiple venues you want to get to, try and space them out. Our general rule is visit in the morning, rest over lunch and do something fun for the children in the afternoon.
Give yourself a realistic time frame for each venue – as much as you love art, a full day in any gallery is not going to work for most children. Have a non-negotiable list of what you want to see in each venue and prioritize those so you didn’t go all the way to the Louvre and miss the Mona Lisa.
Dad is the art buff in our family, so when we visited the Vatican, we went as a family to see the highlights during the day and then Dad went back alone one evening to fill in the gaps of what he wanted to see.
Since our eldest daughter was 18-months old, our family has been to numerous museums and galleries. They’ve learned to read hieroglyphics at the touring King Tut exhibit, they’ve grinned down the stuffed lions at the South African Museum in Cape Town, they’ve followed the Stations of The Cross in a tiny church in Rome, roared at the lions in Amsterdam Zoo (which happily roared back), roared again at the lion statues in the Louvre (thankfully they didn’t roar back), and danced across the mosaic floors in Barcelona’s Parc Guel.
Was every visit smooth sailing when they were little? No, but watching them learn and enjoy the history and art of the world, we’d do it all over again.