Museum tours with a spirit of adventure

"The Iolani Palace tour takes an hour and a half and includes only unfurnished rooms," the ticket officer informed us. "Decide now, since we only have a few spaces left with the next group," he urged.

We couldn't decide. Would our children be totally bored by empty rooms and possibly monotone tour guides? Would they invent their own entertainment and disturb this adult group? Worse yet, would a new "royal" rule -- "Children under 12 not admitted" -- be instated after we left? Gazing up at the silent, stone palace, we finally reasoned that it must have valiant tales from the past to tell -- episodes from the royal monarch days to intrigue all ages. We bought four tickets, pulled on cloth slippers, and shuffled across the gleaming oak floors after the tour.

Two hours later, reluctantly strolling away, we stopped for one more look at the palace from the Indian banyan grove. I wanted to thank our guide just one more time -- not just for her lively presentation, or for her detailed answers to questions, or even for her lovely 19th-century dress and colorful descriptions of a foreign society. Most of all, I wanted to thank her for reaching out and bringing the children into the heart of her discussions.

From the start she whisked the children to the front of the group, where they could hear and see. Many times she looked directly at them as she explained and described. Weaving among the unfurnished rooms, her art of storytelling fired their imaginations. On the final stop, the Coronation Room, the children were invited to be king and Queen, greeting their pretend foreign visitors in customary manner. These little things added up to a big success.

Perhaps the growth of children's museums (78 in the United States) indicates we're learning how to help children really enjoy a museum. When they're involved, learning, exploring, their spirit of adventure is kept alive. But even when parents turn out to be the guides in a museum, and strict rules govern behavior, still we can collect tips from the experts. Children can "touch" the museum with their imaginations.

I tried this out during an art exhibit of Grandma Moses' work. The children became "art critics," identifying the foreground, middle ground, and background in each painting. They took turns awarding ribbons to their favorites. The museum guards were watchful, but not critical of their role playing.

One mother invited her young daughter to step back 200 years in time during a visit to Mount Vernon. Tea with Martha Washington became an imaginary focus as they explored the home and grounds.

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