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How to make the most of family museum visits

From making discoveries to family time, here is why museums are so important for your child and how to make the most of them

Posted: 14 September 2013
by Sophie Westnedge

There was not a trace of dust to be seen

There was a time when museums were dark and dusty places, where children were hushed and reprimanded if they got too touchy-feely with the exhibits. Not so these days, where most enlightened museums have brilliant interactive elements and special programmes to excite and engage young visitors.

And, while you can find almost anything online, from a CGI tour of Tutankhamun’s tomb to all manner of prehistoric trivia to satiate a young paleontologist’s curiosity, nothing beats the actual relics of real living history, whether it is fighter jets from the Second World War or a towering reconstruction of a terrific T-Rex.

Ten years ago, the Kids In Museums initiative threw down the gauntlet to the UK’s museums, challenging them to be more welcoming to families. Today, more than 350 museums have made the pledge to adhere to their 20-point plan that includes promises to make access easier, to encourage interaction for children with plenty of hands-on activities, and provide a safe and comfortable environment for families.

The initiative also encourages all generations to visit together: museums are social, sensory, stimulating places – perfect for babies – while accompanying grandparents can often put a personal perspective on things
from their own childhood, providing anecdotes and memories.

“The fantastic thing about museums is that they have the actual object. You can digitise images of things, you can show them in 3D, but you haven’t got the real thing,” says Graham Boxer, director of the Imperial War Museum North. “There’s nothing like seeing the awe on children’s faces when they realise the piece they are looking at is authentic. The power of the real thing goes way beyond what is available on the internet.”

And a family museum trip today doesn’t mean staring at dust-covered exhibits while telling your brood to keep their voices down. Instead, your mini-historians will have a chance to create art, dance and get their hands dirty. “Over the last ten years, museums have become more attuned to children,” says Graham. “They are a great neutral space in which young people can explore, learn and discover.”

Because it’s not just about fun, folks. Research has shown that children with first-hand experience of the information museums offers are more likely to retain it in later life. “There’s nothing like the thrill of the real objects, and there’s nothing like a museum to spark a family conversation,” explains Dea Birkett, director of Kids In Museums.

"My mum, almost 80, took my 11 year old twins to the Imperial War Museum. She saw a ration book there from the Second World War, and it made her talk to them about her time as a child in the 1940s. She’d never done that before," revealed Dea. "The following weekend she came around to our house with her own ration book. She’d gone up into to her attic to find it. That wouldn’t have happened without a museum visit."

The Kids in Museums charity also run The Family Friendly Museum Award, which is judged by families. If you've got a musuem that you'd love to nominate then email or find out more about the award on the Kids in Museums website.

The Imperial War Museum North has lots going on for children and families. "We have hands-on activities, opportunities to handle objects, we have a learning space which during holidays and at weekends converts into an activity space, and we have storytelling in the gallery," says Graham. "We also have The Big Picture show in the main exhibition space, where we tell people stories of war and conflict through surround films with different themes. There are 25 projectors, so you can be immersed in the experience of what it’s like to lose someone during the war, what it was like for children living through war and conflict, or how the nature of warfare has changed. Children really enjoy this!" See the IWM North website for more information.

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