Top Museum Traits

The top children’s museums share these 5 features

Did you know that there are 243 children’s museums in the United States? And, according to the Association of Children’s Museums (ACM), 70 more are in the works. We on the FLEXHIBIT team got to learn about quite a few of them at Interactivity 2017, this year’s ACM conference, in Pasadena, Calif.

What we found: each of these museums, dedicated to children and learning, is special. Their personnel and volunteers work with dedication and passion to improve young lives, often on a shoestring.

And yet, a relative handful of children’s museums consistently make “best of lists” in such publications as Parents, Parenting, Forbes, and Mother. What, we wondered, sets them apart from the rest?

Here are five must-have traits we found for children’s museums wanting to stand out in the crowd:

  1. They are interactive and tactile. Did you know that the very concept of “hands-on” museums originated with the Boston Children’s Museum? In the 1960s, they were the first to invite their young visitors to touch the “merchandise.” Today, all the top museums include tactile activities in their programming. The Strong Museum in Rochester, NY, recently featured a “Hands-On Harley Davidson” exhibit in which visitors got to create their own custom motorcycle using various motor parts and accessories, and “test drive” it via video. “Dinosphere” at the Children’s Museum Indianapolis lets kids dig for dinosaur bones and lay their hands on a real T-rex bone. The Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia lives up to its name, inviting visitors to touch everything in sight.
  2. They are immersive. At the best museums, children run the show—or, in the case of “Kidtropolis” at the Children’s Museum of Houston, the whole darned town. Here, children work in the pretend city hall, bank, veterinary clinic, and more. At the Minnesota Children’s Museum, “Our World” is a children-run neighborhood including a post office, food truck, and fire truck. The Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles is presenting a “Noah’s Ark” immersive experience based on ancient flood narratives in an 8,000-square-foot space where children build their own giant ark and care for life-sized “animals.” We got to experience this exhibit at Interactivity 2017, and it is awesome!
  3. They offer something for all ages. The family that plays together stays together, right? School-age children may be the main focus, but the top museums cater to toddlers and adults, too, for a full-family experience. In the Children’s Museum of Denver’s “Center for the Young Child,” tots age 1 to 4 can “boulder scramble,” pretend to kayak, and more in a simulated mountain scene. KidScience at Discovery Place in Charlotte, N.C. caters to the under-7 and adult crowds at once, supplying them with giant foam blocks and Duplos for building, race-track materials, and a giant water table for splashing around. The International Spy Museum in Washington, DC gets kids and grown-ups playing together, too: adopting cover identities, learning about gadgets including recording bugs and hidden camera, and participating in interactive spy missions.
  4. They change exhibits frequently. A 2010 Kohl Children’s Museum of Greater Chicago survey of ACM members found that more than one-fifth of the 163 respondents said they rent traveling exhibits—which usually run three months—three times a year. Nine others said they host traveling shows more than that. A look at top museums’ websites shows a veritable revolving door of exhibits: in the Madison Children’s Museum, for instance, they change every few months. (Not everyone can do this due to budget or space constraints, however; nearly 20 percent of survey respondents said they have no room for traveling exhibits, and nearly one-half said their available space for these shows is under 1,000 square feet.)
  5. They include science and math. The Kohl Children’s Museum of Greater Chicago hosts “Science Fridays,” and provides white lab coats, microscopes, and materials for science experiments in its “Science and You” temporary exhibit now showing. “Amazingly Immature,” a traveling exhibit now at the Port Discovery Children’s Museum in Baltimore, makes science and math enjoyable with hands-on activities: pull the tablecloth out from under the dishes; use spoons as catapults; learn how to make super-fast paper airplanes, and more. Pasadena, as we saw during the conference, has a forest full of physics: the Kidspace Children’s Museum’s Galvin Physics Forest features 13 hands-on and interactive physics-related activities outdoors, under the trees.

The beauty of this list? It shows that children’s museums don’t have to be big (although some on this list are very large), fancy, or expensive. Money helps, of course, but really, all you need is a love for children, a willingness to work, and—perhaps most important—an active imagination. Let’s play!