DAYS OF DISCOVERY Taking kids to museums means company manners, yet freedom to explore


You've undoubtedly seen one of these children at a Baltimore museum: The one with the contented look of discovery who eagerly bounces between displays, turning knobs and listening intently. And the one with the glazed-over eyes, begging to leave.

While the city's many and varied cultural institutions can open up whole new worlds to children, all too often a museum visit can be a source of frustration for both youngsters and parents alike. This need not be the case.

If you prefer looks of discovery to frantic boredom, the secret is planning.

"Most museums have an education department," says Jeanne Franklin, public affairs coordinator of the Baltimore Museum of Industry. "We love it when people call us." Most museums are more than happy to share details about what to look for, special events and least crowded times to visit.

Even if you're just dropping in on the spur of the moment, museum staff can help you tailor visits to individual interests and ages. Stephanie Ratcliffe, an exhibits developer at the Maryland Science Center, explains that families can't see everything in one day. "When I work the line [by the admission counter], I usually end up helping people plan their day," she says.

Planning also helps parents handle that ominous part of taking children to museums -- explaining what behavior is expected. And different kinds of museums have different expectations.

History museums such as the Museum of Industry or the City Life Museums often role-play historical events -- listening is in order. Science centers harness energy into interactive learning with push buttons, audiovisuals and, often, life-size props. Art museums, perhaps the most daunting prospect for many parents, encourage quiet vision and thinking.

And contrary to what some adults think, children do belong in art museums, says Schroeder Cherry, Director of Education and Community at the Baltimore Museum of Art. "Art museums are beginning to take a cue from children's museums," he says, by scheduling family participation events. The BMA and the Walters Art Gallery also have workshops and performances for families.

Mr. Cherry says children can understand they help save art for everyone by not touching and by following any rules normally reserved for visiting another's home.

Children's museums may look like play, but they set foundations of museum etiquette. The Cloisters Children's Museum, for example, houses furniture and family heirlooms meant for preservation.

"The very young [children] really benefit from coming to the Cloisters as a first museum visit," says Rosemary Fetter, its director. "They will see red ropes on the furniture. Though it's not a major part of the museum, there's enough here that you can talk about old and precious things that have to be taken care of."

Once the agenda is set and behavior defined, the trip can begin. But how long to stay?

Museum experts suggest visits from 45 minutes to no more than two hours. Children -- and parents -- have finite attention spans.

"Sometimes we go to a museum and just walk through," says Sandy Jenks, a Cockeysville mother of three. "Just so they see it."

Mrs. Jenks and her husband Rick have lived in 15 cities as a result of Mr. Jenks' former career as a teacher and insurance administrator. Now co-ministers at Mays Chapel Church, the Jenkses say museum visits have been a priority in each city. And after seven years in Baltimore, they are still discovering new museum destinations.

They often let the children set the pace. "We're not people who say, 'You must see this and that.' We just walk. Their own interests will guide them to where they want to be."

This deference to their children's interests has allowed daughter Adrienne, 10, to spend an entire museum visit in a gallery devoted to ballet, and to let Leslie, 8, re-explore a farm house to satisfy her curiosity about seldom-seen household furnishings. It even gives Sarah, 13, the freedom to indulge her interest in gift stores if there are no interactive exhibits.

Mr. Jenks observes that museum memberships free the family from feeling they must see everything in one visit. "For a family our size, one visit to the [National] Aquarium pays for a membership," he says. "It frees you to go often and for as long or as short as you like. If I paid $10 or $15 to get in, I'd want them to see everything, even if it were painful!"

(One-time admission to the Aquarium is $10.75 for adults and $6.50 for children. For a family of four, that's $34.50 just for admission. By comparison, an annual family membership is $63.

Like the aquarium, most museums offer family memberships, which can include a number of special benefits such as newsletters listing upcoming exhibits, workshops, day trips to related points of interest outside the museum and off-hour previews of new exhibits.)

Most of yesterday's look-but-don't-touch museums are now state- of-the-art places where interaction is the word of the day. Visitors see, touch, hear and sometimes taste parts of the world hitherto unreachable. What's a parent's role in this new museum world?

The Science Center's Ms. Ratcliffe notes that museum exhibits are designed so parents and children can discover things together.

The No. 1 priority of the Science Center "is to have fun," she says.

Even to children dazzled by discovery, the need for breaks will become evident.

"You have to be sensitive to different energy levels and attention spans," says Mrs. Jenks. Many museums have outside points of interest for frazzled families -- nature trails, parks and neighborhoods.

Though some families may prefer healthy treats from home over snack bar fare, Mr. and Mrs. Jenks don't worry if lunch is ice cream and popcorn. Museum visits, they say, should be fun and stress-free, so the children will want to return.

The real goal, the Jenkses agree, is to get their children comfortable in venturing to places where opportunities beckon.

"I don't know what it is that's going to spark them," says Mrs. Jenks, "what they want, or need, or want to be. The more things they're exposed to increases their awareness of what the possibilities are."

The family expands the definition of museums by taking their children to other public places as well -- train stations, churches, markets -- that offer new sights and lifestyles.

"Museums are learning places," says the Cloister's Mrs. Fetter. "I think parents enjoy seeing their children learn. They don't always get to see that, even at home and certainly not in school."

Four basics for museum trips

The authors of "Where's the Me in Museum: Going to Museums with Children" (Waterfall & Grusin, Vandamere Press, 1989) think a visit to any kind of museum will be smoother if parents follow their "Four B's" of museum basics:

*Behavior: The difference between at-home and public behavior should be discussed in advance. Ideally, this prevents the museum itself from being the site of a test of wills.

*Building: Take time to get to know the building itself. Many museum buildings, with ornate architecture and huge hallways, are experiences in themselves. Getting comfortable will enhance a child's security.

*Break: Museums require a lot of physical and mental energy. Try for breaks outside the building, if possible.

*Bathrooms: Locate the bathrooms before the visit begins to avoid calamity.

"Where's The Me in Museum: Going to Museums With Children" is available at the Baltimore County and Howard County Libraries and directly from the publisher.

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