The National Museum of African American History and Culture on Memorial Day. (Photo by Aidan Bush.)

Families are coming back to museums. How do they keep kids engaged?

Parents, museums try to involve children in more complex exhibits.

What is too much for a child at a museum?

Smithsonian museums in the nation’s capital have seen steady increases in attendance since the Covid-19 pandemic. 

That means a new set of parents are trying to engage their children in important and sometimes challenging topics. Navigating issues from the Holocaust to U.S. slavery requires special attention — and visitors over the Memorial Day weekend gave it their all.

For some parents, the solution is letting children take the lead, whether through museum-created or by children choosing exhibits based on their own interests rather than the parents’.

Other families are unpacking traumatic historical topics, finding interactive pieces for children to grasp without exposing them to age-inappropriate content. 

London resident Will Ellis visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture with his 10-year-old son. Compared to European institutions, he said American museums tend to center heavily around narratives. 

His son sat in the museum’s section devoted to Civil Rights activism. His eyes were glued to an explanatory video.

“Going through topics like the slave trade is almost too difficult for him because it’s almost too abstract,” Ellis said. “The TVs and the touch screens help keep him engaged.”

Sections of the NMAAHC included content warnings about difficult and graphic images, which were outlined in red.

For museums outside of the Smithsonian facilities, parents also decide when their children won’t understand portions of the work.

At the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Virginia resident Nancy Goltsman and her family gazed at the Children’s Tile Wall, a 1990 exhibit made of over 3,300 tiles hand-painted by children with their impressions of the Holocaust.

Goltsman went to the museum when she was younger, and remembered feeling a connection to the museum’s ID card exhibit, where visitors receive ID cards of individuals who lived through the Holocaust, and what they faced.

“I remember how heavy it is,” she said. “We remember so it [the Holocaust] doesn’t repeat, and the only way it doesn’t repeat is if we carry this information generation to generation.”

This time, she brought her 10-year-old daughter Shaynah and her 5-year-old son, Ari. She hopes to introduce them to more museums as they age to give the children some foundation before they’re taught more in the public school system. 

“This way, when more details of the story come to light in schooling, they are prepared for it,” she said. 

Ari was only allowed to visit the Children’s Tile Wall, but Goltsman said she thought it connected with him. They will explore the rest of the museum when he’s older.

“Frankly, from a respect standpoint, he would not be respectful enough for those exhibits,” she said as Ari sprinted laps around the museum hallways.

Young museum-goers in charge.

For those a little closer to the District of Columbia, visiting every museum — regardless of intended age — can become a regular family activity.

Steven Santomauro’s Maryland family makes near-weekly trips to the area’s larger museums. His 6-year-old son, Grayson, leads the family’s choice of museum, as well as choice in what exhibits they visit.

The frequent museum visits have made Grayson a critic — he dislikes sculptures, hates modern art, and disliked “all the art” in the National Museum of Asian Art, though he said he liked some works there on the Buddha.His parents attributed Grayson’s strong opinions to his current mood rather than his overall view of the museums.

“He’s in a grumpy mood today,” Steven Santomauro said.

Aidan Bush

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