05 March 2009

More about museums and kids: small is beautiful

So we've visited a fair number of the really monolithic cultural institutions in our travels. Our kids have been to the British Museum, the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the American Natural History Museum, and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). All fantastic institutions, and all overwhelmingly huge. Taking kids there is a major undertaking (see Kids and the Louvre: a survival guide).

Something interesting we have discovered along the way is that small institutions can be wonderful - sometimes appreciably better than the gigantic ones. Not only can the exhibits themselves be first rate, they are frequently less crowded and much more manageable for taking kids around.

Any decent travel guide will mention smaller places, but I'm going to list a few we've visited that were outstanding. None of these are "children's museums". They are all fully-fledged museums for adults. However, our kids have each found many things to enjoy in all of them during their visit. This is only a selection of the places we've visited - there are many, many similar ones, of excellent quality and equally welcoming to kids.
  • The Burrell Collection, Glasgow. Primarily a museum focussing on the medieval period, it is conveniently set in parklands where the kids could run around for a while.

  • The Cloisters, New York. Another medieval collection, this time at the tip of Manhattan island. It is a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and well worth a visit.

  • Hancock Shaker Village, Massachusetts. A living museum made up of farms, homes, and a school preserving the unique Shaker way of life. Those who work the farms and keep the village running are not Shakers themselves, but keep everything running in an authentic manner. Our kids adored this place (so did we - we could have spent a whole day there easily - but we ran out of time).

  • The Chester Beatty Library, Dublin. Home to a huge collection of books and manuscripts, including important early New Testament fragments, and a magnificent selection of historic Qu'rans.

  • The Morgan Library, New York. Another collection of manuscripts, this time mostly European up to the early days of printing. It also includes a collection of original (i.e. autograph) music scores.

  • Trinity College Library, Dublin. For one thing only: the Book of Kells. Words alone cannot capture the magnificence of this book. Just go there. Actually, there are a couple of lesser-known treasures there also which are worth seeing.

  • Musee de l'Orangerie, Paris. Rightly famous for the huge waterlily paintings by Monet. A wonderfully intimate gallery where kids will not feel out of place.

  • The Museo de Artes y Costumbres Populares, Seville. A really fascinating place where a series of different rooms have been set up as 'working' exhibits showcasing various local crafts and industries. Examples include gilding, olive pressing, pottery and tile painting, and leatherwork. 

  • The British Library. It has a single exhibition space with all sorts of iconic and amazing items from their collection, such as the Codex Sinaiticus, hand-writted Beatles lyrics, Beethoven manuscripts, the original of Alice in Wonderland. Manageable and amazing.

  • The Powerhouse Museum, Sydney. A little larger than some of the others, but very kid friendly and usually not crowded. It showcases Australian social, design and engineering history and has some hands-on areas for kids. The two steam locomotives are always a hit.

  • The Nicholson Museum of Antiquities, Sydney. Part of the University of Sydney, best of all it is free. The exhibits displays draw from ancient civilizations such as Egypt, Assyria, Greece, Rome and Cyprus. The kids usually like the Egyptian mummies.

  • Any museum in Portugal. At the time of writing, Portugal was - even at the height of the European summer - uncrowded, though we didn't dare enter the over-developed Algarve coast. We didn't queue for anything, everything was reasonably priced, and nothing was too big for kids to manage. And the kids struck up a wonderfully funny relationship with the museum attendants at the Museu de Artes Decorativas in Lisbon.

  • The Tower of London. The crown jewels are a must for any little girl who fancies herself a princess, or who just loves shiny, sparkly things.
We should also mention Hong Kong Disneyland as a sanity-sparing alternative to the larger versions in Los Angeles, Florida, Tokyo and Paris. It covers a physically smaller area, is far less crowded than the others, and therefore waiting times in queues are much reduced. It is, however, more suitable for younger children as it has one really gut-wrenching rollercoaster - Space Mountain (which 4-year-old Bendy loved, and 7-year-old Bookworm detested).

The giant museums and galleries are unmissable - usually because they are the custodians of a particularly iconic work, but don't overlook the less frantic pace of smaller institutions. You can often see artworks or historic pieces whose quality is on par with the major institutions.

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