Last month I had the opportunity to walk through the Freer and Sackler Galleries with my three-year-old daughter. Passing by on our way to an event for her school, a glimmer of silver caught her eye.
I was eager to get to the auditorium, but she was captivated. So we stopped, and I was forced to use those three little words that grownups can be so scared of:
“I don’t know.”
I checked the label. It was a wine horn, from Iran. OK, so now I knew what the object was, but I still knew next to nothing about ancient Persian culture, and not much about how this wine horn was used, or by whom. We spent a few moments just looking at it, along with the other two horns in the case. I was anxious to get where we were going, but also wanted to reward her curiosity. So what next? I couldn’t tell her a story about the object (“You know how Mommy likes to drink wine? Well…”) so I defaulted to a more general question:
“Which one of these do you like best?”
“I like the cat one”
“It looks happy”
Now, my three-year-old is no different from any other three-year-old. We weren’t going to be able to spend five hours in the museum, or look at the whole collection in great detail, and she wasn’t going to leave knowing everything about the culture of Iran. Many people think this means that little kids don’t “get” anything out of a museum visit, as if museums exist primarily to pour facts into developed minds.
But as my daughter watched me read the label, looked at the wine horn, and pondered my simple questions, she was absolutely learning—about how to find information from objects, notice details, and ask questions. These are important skills we use every day when we encounter new things. Just knowing that her mom doesn’t have all the answers, but knows how to try and find them, is a great lesson in itself.
After a few more minutes of admiring the sparkly animals, deciding which one we’d take home with us, and talking about what we’d use it for, we moved on. It was a small moment, but it captured everything I love about museums. Museums make tangible the beauty of wonder and discovery. Museums are places to encounter things you know nothing about, to ask questions, find answers, and see in new ways.
So don’t be intimidated—bring your little ones to a museum. Not just a children’s museum, but a history museum, a science museum, an art museum. Don’t worry that you won’t know everything. Don’t feel like they have to understand everything. Show them that exploring the unfamiliar is fun, and you’ll give them a gift that will last a lifetime.
Megan Smith is an Education Specialist at the National Museum of American History.