We travel often so we have the opportunity to go to a lot of museums. And I have pictures. Because like all parents, kids in museums is part of my vision of an idyllic childhood. But I never use the photos in my posts because, to be honest, most visits to museums stink.
The acoustics are bad which makes museums unnerving to my older son and we have memberships at every museum we go to so he can go to the member’s lounge for some quiet. The kinesthetic opportunities are limited which makes museums unnerving to my younger son, so we have to go to a playground before and after which feels a little like walking a dog.
I was thinking maybe my kids are spoiled brats or video game addicts or both and that’s why we can’t do museums. But increasingly I realized that museums had their heyday along the same trajectory as the development of schools. Schools made learning boring, and museums tried to rectify that.
But today’s kids are dying to do interactive learning and hands-on learning at home, the only place for that kind of thing. For today’s kids, the museum is an improvement over school, but not over learning at home. Which means that homeschoolers have little use for museums.
Before you tell me how your kid loves museums, here are some examples of why museums are an increasingly limited learning tool for kids, and adults, for that matter.
1. Children’s museums are over-designed indoor playgrounds.
Interactive! Movies! Make it yourself! These would all be great opportunities if it weren’t that houses have all these opportunities as well. A lot of children’s museums are good places to play indoors, but why not just go to an indoor playground? They have better climbing equipment.
Maybe you could argue that interactive learning at home is solitary and interactive learning in a children’s museum is community-based, but seriously, just invite some friends to come over and play and there you have it: Interactive! Movies! Make it yourself!
The Children’s Museum in Madison is really highly rated. My son’s favorite thing he’s ever done there is make a sign to tell people that he’s a cellist.
I looked at it and said, “That’s nice.”
And he said, “Okay. Let’s go. I want to play my cello outside the museum and make some money.”
Some of you will conclude that my son is obsessed with money. This might actually be true. But what is also true is that he sees how the museum is just a list of activities that he might be interested in, and, not surprisingly, his passion is not on the list. Your kid’s passion is probably also not on the list. Any museum is small compared to the world your kid lives in.
2. Dinosaur museums are one-time wonders.
Maybe you are saying that your kid is a museum kid. I have one of those. When he was five my son loved dinosaurs. We went to the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Five times. The last time we went he was not interested. How many times does a kid need to see a dinosaur? And all the other information he can get online. Or in a book.
Is it more fun to sit on your sofa and read books with your mom or is it more fun in a loud, have-to-travel-there museum? Is it more fun to have all the information about velociraptors at your fingertips, in the Internet, or is it more fun to be limited to just what the museum chooses to tell you?
When he was eight, my son loved fossils, so I took him to a fossil museum. He said he’d rather go on a fossil dig than be in the museum. That makes sense. Most kids would rather do something that interests them rather than read about it. So we went on a dinosaur dig, and guess what he learned? He hates digging for dinosaurs.
3. Exhibit-based museums are primary sources for the rare person who needs them.
And that’s the real learning kids should do: what are they interested in. What a museum teaches kids is that they are not interested in much of the topics the museum has. Or, if they are interested, then they have already found enough information online. You don’t need to go to a museum to get information, and you don’t need to go to a museum to do interactive learning.
So what do we need museums for? Primary sources. People do need to learn from primary sources. But you need to be learning about something deeply to require those primary sources. Let me ask you something: Do you know what you would learn about art history or painting from seeing the Mona Lisa in person instead of in a book?
First of all, I hate to burst your bubble, but you can’t even get close to the Mona Lisa because there is such a crowd in front of it. But even if you could get close, you’d really need to know a lot about renaissance painting and atmospheric illusionism to gain any insight from seeing the painting in person.
4. Museums are another way to limit self-directed learning.
I find that it’s a struggle to make paintings relevant enough to my kids to get them to care that they are standing in front of one. At the Art Institute in Chicago I told my son the painting was made, in part, to inventory the jewelry the person had and to keep track of their wealth.
He understood. He’s a practical boy. And he thought it was a smart way to do it before there was Excel. On the other hand, clearly he could have found this out himself by searching for the history of accounting online. The thing is, this is not what he was most interested in learning that day. So while he did learn something serendipitous, there’s a lot to be said for each of us being able to control what we learn each day.
That’s why museums are like school. They give you a choice of what to learn, but it’s a very limited choice and it’s in a confined space. Which is exactly what you get in school. Let’s say it’s a rich-kid school. There is a great teacher-student ratio and the kids can choose what they want. It’s still very very limited. And unnecessarily limited.
5. To see how irrelevant museums are, follow the money.
Curious Methods is a great business. They use all the resources of the Met to create a product: tours for kids. I didn’t want to take the tour, but Melissa made me. And she took a picture of me to remind me that I truly found the tour enthralling.
At one point we went into a dark corner of the museum I would never have noticed and really, I’ve been to the Met a million times, and the tour guide, Mark Rosen, blew my mind with the stuff he could find in that museum.
Once I was home, thinking about the business model, I realized that what Curious Methods really does is try to make the museum interesting to kids. And this is not an isolated business. My Learning Springboard and ArtSmart sell customized museum tours because, presumably, if you put a kid in a museum he will not find anything to learn without someone helping them.
And I believe it, because kids can’t find stuff to learn when they are in a situation that is not conducive for learning. And a museum falls into this category for 90% of kids.