The New York State Museum in Albany was one of my favorite places as a child. Despite the fact that my mom is a teacher and deeply devoted to education, I dragged her there so many times that even she started getting sick of it. While it’s far from a world-class museum, it has a lovely diversity of exhibits, including large dioramas of taxidermied animals, rock and minerals displays, histories of New York’s Native American tribes, and a tribute to New York City. So when my mom suggested bringing Sprout there over Christmas break, I thought it was worth checking it. Even though he’s was too young to read the placards, we thought he would enjoy looking at the exhibits.
We headed to Albany on Monday morning, walking to the Museum through the huge underground Concourse. I pointed out to Sprout the huge abstract art covering the walls, thinking he would like the giant multi-colored snake and interlocking black and white shapes. However, he was more interested in the noisy construction equipment than looking at modern art. When we finally arrived at the museum’s front doors, we discovered that the exhibits are closed on Mondays. While we considered detouring to a different museum, we ditched the entire thing and headed home.
The day after Christmas, we decided to give the New York State Museum another try after a play date with one of my mom’s friends’ kids was canceled. This time, they were actually open.
We started off with the Adirondack exhibit. Sprout was fascinated by the majestic stuffed elk in front of a running waterfall, although I couldn’t tell if it was the animal, the water, or the coins in the pool that kept his attention. We spent about 10 minutes looking at that single display and he still kept trying to go back when we tried to leave. However, not all of the animals were nearly that popular. Looking skeptically at both the moose and the mastadon, he wouldn’t get too close, wary of their size.
On our way out of the Adirondacks section, we came upon the Children’s Discovery Center, which I had forgotten about. When I was a kid, it was filled with computers that allowed you to play Odell Lake (a game where you played a fish trying not to get eaten) and other vaguely educational games. When hardly anyone had a home computer, those black and green screens were the height of excitement. As many kids now have their own iPads, the Center has since gone in the opposite direction. Everything was touchy-feely, with the only screens being those showing a microscope close-up of insect mouthparts. Like our local nature center, they had animal furs, skins, bones, and fossils to touch.
They also had a small collection of wooden puzzles, animal puppets, and dress-up costumes. Playing with one of the puzzles, Sprout brought one piece over to the middle of the floor, near another, slightly older boy. The boy must have been playing with the same puzzle earlier, as he immediately shouted, “Mine!” in typical toddler fashion. While the little boy’s dad was in the middle of telling him that he had to share, Sprout did something surprising. He went back to the puzzle across the room and brought back a different piece for the boy to play with. When the kid kept whining, he brought over the entire puzzle to share. It was such a kind gesture; I was so proud of him for being generous when he didn’t have to be.
Next up was one of my favorite sections of the Museum – the area on the Iroquois Native American confederacy. While these days it looked out-of-date and probably had some level of cultural insensitivity (I didn’t have time to read the placards), at one point, it did spark my interest about a culture very different from my own. The heart of the exhibit is a large replica of a longhouse. While visitors can walk through much of it, the end of it is blocked off and has a diorama of people listening to a story around a fire. With its poor lighting and audio narration, entering that longhouse felt a little like stepping back in time to me. Creeping into it slowly, afraid yet still very interested, I think Sprout understood a little of that feeling. As we left, I explained to him that descendants of these people are still around and continue to use some of the costumes for ceremonies. While I know he didn’t understand my explanation, but it was important for me to say it anyway. I want him both to know about the history of a variety of ethnic groups as well as understand that history is more than just a story in a book – that these people still exist today and the events of the past reverberate through our modern day.
Next up was the New York City exhibit, which was a bit of a mixed bag. He loved the subway car parked in the middle of the floor, giggling as he ran in and out of it. Although we’ve been on the D.C. Metro many times, he clearly didn’t make that connection that they were the same thing. Obviously, we haven’t made the jump from generic “train” to “subway” yet. He was pretty indifferent about the Sesame Street display, only interested by the historical clips they were playing on a dinky TV. He could have cared less about Oscar the Grouch being there in person. For obvious reasons, we skipped the September 11 exhibit and finished off with a walk through the room of historical fire trucks. As he took in the 20 pieces or so of huge shiny fire equipment, his eyes went wide. While many of them were both practical and decorative, a silver one that could have been Cinderella’s carriage was actually used only in parades.
We wrapped up our trip with a ride on the museum’s historic, restored carousel. While not as bright or elaborate as some, its horses were truly lovely. Although we’ve been in carousels elsewhere, Sprout had clearly forgotten those experiences, because his mouth dropped when his horse moved upwards. As the ride spun faster and faster, he gazed at the cranks spinning round and round that move the horses up-and-down. I definitely knew he enjoyed it when as soon as it stopped, whiny grousing commenced. Fortunately, we had a built-in reason we couldn’t repeat the ride – the carousel is so fragile that they only run it every 15 minutes, saving both the historical landmark and parents’ sanity.
Reflecting on our day, I realize how drastically different my experience was before and after having a child. I used to read every placard, trying to imprint the information into my brain. This time, I had neither the luxury of time or focus to do more than skim them. Previously, I meandered from exhibit to exhibit, lingering on those I found particularly interesting. Now, I followed Sprout from place to place, letting him take the lead.
This is not to say that we’ll stop visiting everything but kid-oriented museums. In particular, I know the New York State Museum so well that there was nothing I would have gained from a close reading. There’s still plenty of places that I’ll want to do more than skim and I believe it’s important to show him we love to learn as well.
But it does mean that the way I approach museums – even the most beloved of them – will radically change. And that’s quite alright with me – seeing my inquisitive little boy learning right beside me brings new meaning to the whole experience.