Let’s be honest: kids and museums aren’t always a match made in heaven. Long lines and ‘boring’ exhibitions— not to mention those draconian no-touch and no-snack policies—hardly constitute an entertaining day out with little ones. Thankfully, the last two decades have seen a proliferation of dedicated children’s museums where youthful creativity, imagination, and messiness are celebrated. But don’t count out so-called “regular” museums, either. From high-tech science projects to digging in the dirt, these diverse institutions in the West will engage every member of your family, kids included.
Exploratorium, San Francisco
At the cutting-edge of interactive museums for 50 years now, the Exploratorium is part laboratory, part research facility, and part wonder factory. Opened in 1969 as a “library of experiments” where people could learn about natural phenomena and the world around them, the museum not only allows but demands participation from each of its visitors. Clever, often humorous displays invite visitors to listen, touch, smell, and create while illuminating scientific concepts ranging from photosynthesis to tidal movements. The state-of-the-art facility on Pier 15 of San Francisco’s Embarcadero makes the experience even more memorable. Children in particular flock to the Tactile Dome, a wonderfully un-scary sensory experience that takes place entirely in the dark.
Smart Tip: AAA Members save 20 percent on daytime Exploratorium admission with advanced ticket purchase online.
SFMOMA, San Francisco
Older children with an interest in art find much to savor at San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art, but even the youngest family members will be mesmerized by its newest ongoing exhibition: the Chronicles of San Francisco, a massive digital mural by the French artist JR. Composed of black-and-white imagery of San Francisco’s faces and places stitched together into a pulsing whole, this ground-breaking digital format breathes new life into the city’s storied tradition of murals depicting the daily experience of working-class people. Free to the public and accessible through a street-level entrance, the Chronicles of San Francisco is the city’s newest must-see.
The Broad, Los Angeles
If certain contemporary artworks leave you thinking, “My kid could have made that!”, then a visit to the Broad might help you to confirm—or deny—it. Downtown Los Angeles’ dazzling art venue is filled with thought-provoking work by the world’s leading contemporary artists, much of which is bright and playful enough for kids to enjoy. The most adventurous can venture into Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrored Rooms for a mind-bending experience (but note that they should be comfortable entering a dark, enclosed space on their own for 45 seconds for The Souls of Millions of Light Years Away). LeVar Burton narrates a free audio tour of the museum, Looking with LeVar, created specifically for families, and free daily admission relieves the pressure to see the entire collection.