Summer vacation

We’re Going on a Treasure Hunt

How to make a summertime museum trip with kids worthwhile.

Read more from Slate’s Summer Vacation special issue. 

In the middle of a recent hot Sunday, I found myself on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., with two tired children and a divided agenda. On one side was my ambitious plan to inject my kids with culture, first by hearing Russian-born singer Regina Spektor and then by trekking over to the FDR Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial. On the other side was my 8-year-old son, Eli, sinking into the dusty grass beside the path we were supposed to be walking on. “I want to go swimming!” issued forth as he collapsed, for the second time in two minutes. His younger brother, Simon, looked down at him pityingly and took up the chant.

I am actually not much of a museum/memorial/high-class-performance-goer. (OK, Spektor doesn’t really qualify for that last category, but she’s not a puppet show.) Exhibits tend to make me feel like I’m falling asleep on my feet; all the earnest appreciating is just too taxing. So, my kids’ weekends aren’t often punctuated with good-for-them activities. In our household, it’s all catch-as-catch-can. Our kids don’t play instruments or casually pick up sketch pads. They kick and throw balls. But once in a while, I am shamed into action. Parents aren’t supposed to always opt for the crowd-pleasing lowest common denominator; we are supposed to expose kids to history, art, music—the 2008 version of finishing school.

On this particular Sunday, I was also feeling the prick of inadvertent peer pressure: a friend’s offhand comment that her kids had been to the FDR Memorial more times than she could count. Whereas mine had been there never. Even though they are little American-history sponges who know all about the Battle of Yorktown (they tell me it has something to do with the Revolutionary War). And so I was determined to make them take a hit of music, for variety’s sake, and then march around the memorials, where they’d drink up worthy quotations and iconic images.

But here’s the thing about kids, summer, and culture: Know thy timing and their limits, and plan accordingly. The beach and the pool require only sun and sunscreen to be a good bet. Highbrow outings are more delicate creatures. My three-event program was utter overkill—too much thinking and walking. And I’d chosen the wrong moment: early summer, when the pool still seems novel and the mosquitoes haven’t yet had the chance to remind us that Washington, D.C., was built on a swamp.

Just as I was insisting that Eli rise from the dust to prove his (or, really, my) fortitude, Paul, my husband, appeared out of the car-parking distance and performed triage. FDR Memorial, yes. Regina and Abe, no. Also, no walking; the reason we’d never worshipped at the altar of FDR is that it’s way off to the side of the Mall somewhere. We would take a cab, with air conditioning, in which the boys could suck away at their water bottles. They did. And they emerged rejuvenated, only to complain that the first statue of FDR was “weird, because he’s not looking at anything.” Paul segued gamely into the controversy over whether to show FDR in a wheelchair. “Why do you think he didn’t want to be photographed that way?” he asked after a bit of suggestive explanation. “I dunno,” Eli said, as Simon tried to climb onto the president’s lap and then moved over to petting his Toto-like dog.

Still, when I asked the kids a few weeks later what they remembered about the memorial, they came up with, “The Depression made people poor” and their inevitable bid to pose for a picture in the back of the bread line. I call that success. We did also make it to the pool that afternoon, which either kept them happy enough to retain those facts or just kept them happy.

I notice now that the “For Kids” link on the FDR Memorial Web site isn’t working, which seems fitting, because the monument isn’t really designed with children in mind. This is OK, since it’s outdoors and has huge blocks of stone and waterfalls as well as that line of beaten-down men that somehow everyone must join. But most of the time, what makes a museum trip work even when you could go to the beach is some form of a treasure hunt. I’m not talking the crown jewels. I mean something, pretty much anything, to look for.

My colleague John Dickerson reminds me that the recent Edward Hopper exhibit at the National Gallery did this well, instructing visitors to look for things in the paintings and then explaining their significance. A twofer. Since the rest of us have already missed that exhibit, I’ll also suggest the James Joyce walk in Dublin, and some other Slate family favorites: the Egypt exhibit and family offerings at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the mummification lesson at the San Diego Museum of Man, the treasure hunt at the New Mexico History Museum in Santa Fe, and the workshops at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo. Also, for younger kids especially: the Hands-On House at the Children’s Museum in Lancaster, Pa., and the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Mass. The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden gives kids a little shape and tells them to find it around the museum—in a painting, in the architecture, in the bathroom, wherever.

Here is a Web site devoted to formalizing the treasure hunt concept, and I also love the idea of a tour of the Met based on retracing the steps of the protagonists in From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler *, which Slate intern Uzoamaka Maduka told me about. And columnist Anne Applebaum gets a prize, I think, for organizing her own hunts for her kids: “We go into the gift shop, everybody buys a couple of postcards, and then they have to find the pictures/sculptures,” she writes. You need a good gift shop to make this work; in addition to Washington, D.C.’s National Gallery of Art, Anne recommends the Pergamon Museum in Berlin.

Hunts also work when they’re humble. Last August (late summer, better timing), Eli and I whiled away an afternoon finding pinwheels, footballs, pine cones, and sleds in the quilts hung at the Billings Farm & Museum in Woodstock, Vt. The nice elderly women who run the show handed out those stubby pencils plus a list of objects to find, and off we went.

I’ve got one final piece of museum-going advice: Take only one child at a time. This is hard to pull off, but—for me at least—it’s worth the effort because my kids are never more charming than when I have them one-on-one. Plus, it allows me to cater directly to each of them: Simon doesn’t end up at an exhibit at which it matters that he can’t read, and Eli isn’t asked to find something—anything—to do at the Please Touch Museum one more time. If you need to span an age gap, go to the beach or the lake or the pool. Go there anyway, on some of those sunny days off. But if you’re craving air conditioning, and you’ve got one kid to entertain, the right museum can be like a long, cool drink for you both. Last week, after school ended and before camp began, my mother took Simon to “Real Pirates: The Untold Story of the Whydah” at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. Input: one kid, a topic he’s mad for, and a well-designed show. Output: excursion heaven. Simon didn’t even want to go swimming afterward. He was too busy talking about the sights he’d seen.

Correction, June 27, 2008: The sentence originally omitted the word From at the beginning of the book’s title. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)