Four ways art museums can make families feel welcome

View of Galeries des Enfants from the lobby entrance at Centre Pompidou
View of Galerie des Enfants from the lobby at Centre Pompidou (Image from Studio GGSV)
Kids and art museums. In most museums, they do not go hand and hand. Museums make claims that they are friendly towards families. They offer a kids tour once a month or themed activity day. They do little to change the museum visiting experience. Picture a visit to an art museum. It is quiet, filled with expensive art that hangs at forehead level for a child, and no touching. If there is an area for kids, the activities are often for older children, and museum rules still apply in that area. It is nice to engage these children but the little ones, the kids that are loud and want to touch, need a place too.
A few museums are doing an excellent job of creating space for families. It is possible for every museum to join them and it does not have to be a pricey, overthought initiative. Here are four ways a museum can make itself more welcoming to families.
First, every museum, if they want to attract families, needs a place for mothers to breastfeed. It doesn’t have to be fancy. Create a nursing corner. Take a corner of a room, add some privacy curtains, a chair, a power strip, and a few books or kids toys. Adding a changing table or pad to the area is also a plus.
A place for baby to eat leads to the next step. Every museum needs a changing station in the bathroom. Changing a baby on a cold, museum bathroom floor is not fun, and it makes the family feel unwelcome. Koala Kare produces stations that are mountable in a stall and are around $200. A small investment that makes families feel welcome.
The third is child interaction training for gallery attendants and security guards. I didn’t take my son to the art museum until he was six because I was afraid someone would say something harsh to him. I worried he would not see the museum as a welcoming place. Why did I have this fear? I’m a docent at an art museum, and I have seen the museum’s attendants and guards shame, threaten, and sneer at kids. They aren’t doing it to be cruel, they are protecting the art, but a majority of them don’t know how to talk to children. They instill fear in their discipline techniques, but they also do harm. Last week I was helping out at an event with about seventy-five third graders. A student was a little too close to the art and an attendant, from the corner, shouted at him to step back. I went over and walked with the student around the exhibit. While walking, he saw a guard watching us, and he said to me, “The guard yelled at me because he knows what school I’m from, so he thinks I’m a bad kid.” I had no idea what school the kid was from so I am sure the attendant hadn’t made a value judgment. Even so, the student took in the message that he did not belong at the museum.
A feel simple lessons could help. First, avoid the don’ts. For example, if a child is running in the museum, one might say “Don’t run!” An attendant could say, “We use walking feet in the museum.” Second, If a child is getting to close to a piece of art or is looking like she may want to touch it, don’t shame her. You could say, “We give our art its personal space in our museum. Stand back the length of my arm,” or, “I can see that you want to touch the art. What do you think it would feel like?” Kids are growing up in a world where fingers interact daily with screens. Why are we surprised that they reach out to touch? We can redirect their touch. One success is having please-touch stations near pieces that are extra-sensory stimulating. Children (and adults) can get out their need to touch.
The last lesson for interacting with children is to use open posture. It is ok for a guard to smile at a child. If an attendant is speaking to a child, she should bend down, so she is at the child’s level. The art’s safety is number one, but it is also important that families feel welcome in these spaces. Closed posture and frustrated expressions from the museum’s staff make families feel unwelcome. The more anxiety that is in a room, the more likely a child is to misbehave.
The last way is to create a space for families. It can be educational, but it doesn’t need to be. If it is a small room with a pile of Magna-tiles, a pack of colored pencils, a stack of paper, and a few books, a family is happy. The place needs to have furniture that kids can climb on. Everything must be touchable, and the kids can talk at kid-level. Families need a break area. Museums can take a long time to visit, and kids need a place to work out their wiggles.
My family spends a longer time at museums when these places exist. I spent seven hours at the Centre Pompidou because of their family area. My partner and I took turns being with the kids in the family area, allowing us time to explore the museum on our own. We also took the kids through exhibits, allowing them a play break between each gallery. They were much more enjoyable to be with inside the museum because of the family area. It is a drag for a parent to have to direct their attention to their kid and not the art in a gallery. No one wants to be saying, “Don’t touch that, leave your sister alone,” while passing masterpieces. When kids are happy, and making space for them at a museum makes them happy, they whine a lot less.
The other plus side for the museum is revenue. We spent more money at the Centre Pompidou than any other museum we have been to as a family. We could take turns going to the gift shop (kid-free shopping!) and we ate three times in their various cafeterias and restaurants.
Here are the museums that I have found that are working to make their spaces welcoming to families. If you have a museum to add, let me know in the comments, and I will add it to my list.

Centre Pompidou

Galerie des enfants at Centre Pompidou
Galerie des Enfants at Centre Pompidou (Image from Centre Pompidou)

Contemporary Jewish Museum

Zim Zoom Family Room at the Jewish Contemporary Art Museum
Zim Zoom Family Room at the Jewish Contemporary Art Museum (Image from the Jewish Contemporary Art Museum)

Dunedin Public Art

Family area at the Dunedin Public Art Museum
Family area at the Dunedin Public Art Museum

Nature always wins

Boardwalk and coastline of Ocean Beach
Ocean Beach’s coastline near Golden Gate State Park

There is a moment we each have where we realize the power of nature. It could be a winter storm that rushes in and knocks out electricity. It ices roads resulting in people stuck in their homes using candles and playing Uno. For me, it was the first time I got stuck in the mud, and no matter how much I moved I couldn’t get out. Friends tried to help and also became stuck. We ended up laying down our brand new winter jackets to create an escape bridge. Sacrificing them to the mud for our freedom. We brought home our muddy, jacket-less selves. I then experienced another force of nature and was grounded for the first time.

Many of us might not remember that first time we dared to battle nature and nature won. From the boardwalk in San Francisco, I watched my son learn this lesson. His sister was asleep in the double stroller, and he wanted to get closer to the ocean. Neither he or his dad can swim so as they walked down to watch the waves I didn’t think much could happen.

I watched my son take off his shoes and socks and run in and out of the water. It was December, and the Pacific coast, so I hoped it was too cold for him. A tempting dance began between him and the waves. I felt that tightening a parent has in her chest when she knows she is not in control and there is a potential danger. I watched as a big wave thrust forward, grabbed him, and then spit him out. His dad bolted to scoop him up, and they rushed back to the stroller. He was cold and crying, and as I removed his clothes, he looked at me and wailed, “The ocean took my heart.”

I dressed him in a makeshift outfit. My winter jack with his dad’s jacket wrapped around his legs, and my hat, scarf, and mittens. I felt gratitude that he was ok. Then came the fear that he has the spirit that will dare to push boundaries and I won’t be able to protect him. A lot of parenting is letting go of control and allowing children to discover their nature. That day I watched his first heartbreak when he realized the ocean may not always be on his side. He was fortunate. I played in my mind the hundred other ways that incident could have transpired. I imagined the moves I should have made to prevent it. The truth is things will happen, I will do the best job I can, and we will keep moving forward. He has a curious spirit, his heart will get broken, and I will be there to take care of him.

Boy in giant jacket looking at his reflection
My son, in his post-wave encounter outfit, outside of the DeYoung museum

Architecture is not photogenic

Blank Studio's Jacaranda Avenue.
Blank Studio’s Jacaranda Avenue (Image by Forbes Massey)
If you are reading this, you woke up in a home with a roof, at least a few walls, and at least one window. Is the space you are living in crafted for you or is it something to move through and be forgettable? We spend our days going in and out of structures and moving through spaces. Most of us do not stop to consider the architecture. What is the use of natural light? How are the window and wall spacing affecting us? What about the positioning of the furniture? We keep moving.
I didn’t think about architecture for a long time. When I decided to rent an apartment, my only thoughts were location and price. The paint scheme was Builder Beige, it was lit like a cave, and the views were of a parking lot or a neighbor’s front door. I was spending at least 8-10 hours in my apartment every day, I wasn’t considering how the design of my home made me feel. I didn’t realize architecture had that power.
Architecture is difficult to explain because it is a phenomenological experience. A photograph of a building isn’t always great at translating that knowledge. An image or a drawing doesn’t tell you how you will feel walking into a building or waking up in it. We may spend a lot of time in architecture, but we don’t adore it. Architecture doesn’t fill up our Instagram feeds like photos of food. It doesn’t create an emotional reaction the way a picture of a croissant might. This may be because we haven’t enjoyed our spaces the same way we have experienced food.
The first place that drew me into to thinking about space was Fallingwater. Fallingwater has appeared in more publications than any other home. Its architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, is the one architect an American may know by name. When I first looked at a photograph of Fallingwater, it was not that impressive to me. My first impression was the waterfall looked pretty, and my eyes grazed over the house. It was beige. It was rectangular.
Fallingwater by Frank Lloyd Wright (Image from Dezeen)
It wasn’t until I had a chance to visit Fallingwater that the photograph changed for me. The wonderful gift of a tour is that it slows down the viewer’s experience of a space. I had never walked through a building with such deliberate, focused steps. The docent led us through the home. She commented on material choices, construction methods, and shared Wright anecdotes. I focused in on taking in the space. I couldn’t believe someone could live in this way. Rooms were full of warm light. Windows positioned themselves to embrace their outdoor surroundings. The cabinet size limited the amount of stuff that could clutter a space. The cantilevers blended the house into its environment instead of opposing it. It was unclear, with the large boulder as part of the family room wall, where the forest ended, and the house began. I couldn’t explain it, but I felt happy sitting in that space.
Now when I see the photograph, I hear the waterfall as I imagine myself looking through a window. I remember the way the sunshine provided natural light and warmth for the family room. How the narrowed doorways discouraged lingering and the open family room invited movement.
We need more spaces that reflect their place. Buildings that embrace where they are from and make us feel good as we spend time in them. I live in Phoenix and the buildings I enjoy most here could only succeed in this environment. I have noticed some design trends that go against this idea. They include the generic condos that contain wooden beams painted to look like steel. Houses that are laden with brick veneers. A home that is slapped down without a consideration of its orientation to the sun. I can do without these trends because I want a city built out of something real. I want to feel that special feeling that rushes in when I am in a thoughtful space. That sense that an architect with a phenomenological design mindset crafted the space. They exist. We need more.
We all need to slow down and think more about the spaces we occupy and what we construct in our community. I encourage you to make some time to visit beautiful buildings and stroll through them and take them in. If you live in Phoenix, here are a few places to visit. They make me happy.

Burton Barr Central Library 

Maryvale Community Complex

Yoga Deva

Taliesin West

Pizzeria Bianco

Phoenix Art Museum (explore the stairwells)

I encourage you to share your favorite spaces in the comments to this post.