Want to give the kids some culture, without going off your rocker along the way? While it's easy to get excited about “museum biggies” like the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York or the Field Museum in Chicago, their collections are so extensive that they can be overwhelming, especially for families. Here are six museums to visit that are rich in learning opportunities, but aren’t spread across acres or up three floors.
The Levine Museum of the New South in Charlotte, NC.
This interactive history museum traces the dramatic changes in Southern and Carolina Piedmont life and culture from 1865 to today. Exhibits present video clips, music, oral histories, and an introduction to the rise of area textile manufacturing and banking industries. Don't miss the mock department store and lunch counter (complete with a discussion of Civil Rights sit-ins)!
The California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento, CA.
The Railroad Museum is part of the National Landmark Old Sacramento Historic District, frozen in time in the iconic Gold Rush era. Kids will love the train rides and seasonal train events, and artwork, toy train displays, and lessons about the multicultural “human face” of railroading will keep the whole family chugging along.
The Museum of Work and Culture in Woonsocket, RI.
The seemingly obscure story of French Canadians who came to work in early 1900s Rhode Island is actually quite representative of many factory workers and owners during the Industrial Revolution. A period home (complete with a radio playing vintage tunes), parochial school classroom, church and mock textile mill imaginatively show daily life back in the day. Exhibits also introduce child labor, the rise of labor unions and the National Textile Strike of 1934.
The Chisholm Trail Heritage Center in Duncan, OK.
An icon of the American West starting in 1867, the Trail originated as a highway of cattle trade through Indian territory. Today, visitors can walk the route from Texas to Kansas on a scale model, learn about life on a cattle drive and watch the excellent multi-sensory “Chisholm Trail Experience” film, where you can experience the thundering hooves and sudden rain showers, then smell the next meal from the chuck wagon!
Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York City.
For an introduction to the timeless topic of immigrant assimilation, step into the Tenement Museum on 97 Orchard Street. Open for tours by appointment only, this meticulously refurbished building tells the story of newly-arrived Americans from the perspective of the urban poor working class, and provides an excellent opportunity to talk to kids about immigration and nationality.
The National World War One Museum in Kansas City, MO.
The “Great War” forged wholesale changes in modern society and government, and this comprehensive museum is a superb history lesson about that seismic period. Many Americans only know WWI from dry textbook discussions of tangled Balkan alliances, but the museum uses dioramas, videos, audio Reflection Rooms and personal anecdotes and memorabilia to help kids and parents alike understand and appreciate a difficult and pivotal time in history.
A visit to any one of these small, focused historical museums gives families the opportunity to engage with history without the crowds, and to truly experience a lasting learning experience.