I am a huge museum nerd. As a kid,
one of my favorite destinations was the New York State Museum. When I travel, I usually visit multiple museums at a location. So I was very excited to introduce Sprout to his first museum experience. While we had brought him to art museums before, they were much more for our enjoyment than his. Even though we live in the museum capital of the world, they’re all designed for folks much bigger than him. As it turned out, having first real museum experience at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh was just right.
Pittsburgh has never struck me as a tourist destination, but I had to go there for work anyway. As I’m also traveling this week, Chris and Sprout came with me so I wasn’t absent for two weeks in a row. As it turns out, Pittsburgh actually has a wealth of cool, unique museums, all of which are very different in form and function from the Smithsonians.
I’ve been to a number of children’s museums, but Pittsburgh’s was easily one of, if not the best, I’ve ever visited.
One of the things that really set it apart was its focus on integrating art into the play space. For example, it had a whole exhibit called Tough Art, a series of pieces designed for children to touch and interact with. One piece was a metallic moon with stars that played different musical tones if you touched the moon and one of the stars at the same time. At first, it seemed like the same person needed to touch the moon and the stars to get it to work. But much to my delight, we realized that wasn’t quite right – multiple people could make the elements sing, but they had to be touching each other for the harmonic resonance to vibrate through their bodies. Holding hands, Chris, Sprout and I had a blast, working together to reach the furthest star. Another part of the exhibit was a series of white poles with colored spotlights that refracted off them, making your shadow shift between multiple colors as you moved. I don’t think Sprout noticed the colors, but we loved watching the rainbow of light as he ran loops around the poles.
Art was integrated into the regular exhibits as well. The Waterworks floor, which had water tools and toys for kids to experiment with, includes a piece simply called Rain Shower. Even the toddler area had visually sophisticated art as decorations, with stained glass pieces giving the area a fairy-tale feel.
Besides being interactive, the museum’s approach to art had two more unique facets – its invitation to children to think about the art as well as create their own. Many of the pieces had captions, just like in a regular art museum, but at a kid’s literacy level without being over-simplified. In the Makespace, kids can use sophisticated tools they may not have access to otherwise to create objects that meet at the junction of art and science. We didn’t visit that section because Sprout was too little, but I look forward to it when we visit in the future.
The other exemplary aspect of the museum is how it managed to have activities that were appropriate for, appealing to, and respectful of a variety of ages. For example, Sprout’s two favorite exhibits were a giant Lite-Brite board and a machine inspired by the bounce pattern of a Superball. For him, the Lite Brite board was awesome because not only did it involve sticking pegs in and out of holes, but the pegs glowed when you put them in! For me as an adult, it was still fun to arrange the pegs into different space-agey patterns. The Superball demonstration had a series of balls on poles that dropped in a wave when you pulled a lever. Sprout loved pushing the balls in place, pulling the lever (which he figured out from watching the museum guide) and watching the balls fall, bouncing up and down. He actually worked quite hard to push the balls into place – the only reason we helped was because we lacked the patience to wait! As he got older, I could see this exhibit still being interesting, for the way it illustrates the pattern of a wave.
Much of this understanding of and respect for children’s needs stems from the museum’s patron saint – Fred Rogers, who was a major influence in its founding and design. While he’s gone, his spirit very much remains in the museum’s special appreciation of children. Sprout had a wonderful time and was especially engaged by some specific exhibits. While would have liked to stayed longer, I was so glad we were able to introduce him to the joys of museums through the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh.