As days get shorter and grayer, museums can be an antidote to cabin fever — or video coma. Globe staffers offer some parent-tested, kid-approved destinations worth checking out.
Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, Kidspace
87 Marshall St., North Adams; 11 a.m.-5 p.m., closed Tuesdays; adults $15; students $10; children 6-16 $5; free for children 5 and under; 413-662-2111, www.massmoca.org
Did they even need it?
Kidspace, at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams, may be the best organized, the best equipped, and the most ambitious space dedicated to children in any New England art museum – and yet it’s strangely redundant. After all, the whole, hulking museum is a kind of kids’ space.
Certainly, MassMoCA is my own kids’ favorite art museum, not to mention the only art attraction that can be sold as an acceptable reward for a three-hour car trip.
Part of the pleasure, of course, is the scale of the place – not just the acreage, but the high ceilings, vast galleries, and wonderful vantage points. All of this makes for an unfair advantage over other museums.
Another part is the thrill of disorientation: No matter how many times you go to MassMOCA, or how many parts of it you think you know, there’s always a new gallery opening up, a turn to the left you never took before, a staircase leading somewhere unexpected.
The scale is connected to the museum’s other great strength: its ambition. Art here can be anything artists (and children) want it to be, because it’s big enough to be anything anyone could want it to be.
The curators at MassMoCA know it, and they make the most of it. From the massive three-level Sol LeWitt installation (with huge wall drawings in bright, mesmerizing colors) to the kinetic, homespun installations in the current, sprawling “Oh Canada” show; from the inventive films on big screens showing in all sorts of dark, tucked-away rooms to the crazy thrills of the broken instruments and splintered mirrors in Sanford Biggers’s installation in “The Cartographer’s Conundrum,” MassMoCA seems to have it all, to offer every possibility, to say no to nothing.
Of course, it also has one of the best – and least stressful – gift shops sharing space with one of the most kid-friendly cafes. You go to MassMoCA, and you can breathe. Hallelujah.
(The Kidspace is great, too.)
Peabody Essex Museum
161 Essex St., Salem; Tue-Sun and holiday Mondays 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; adults $15, seniors $13, students $11, under 16 free; separate $5 admission to “Yin Yu Tang: A Chinese House” exhibit; 978-745-9500 or 866-740-3649, www.pem.org
Every October, Salem morphs into a citywide Halloween theme park where witches and werewolves, not arts and crafts, dominate the local museum scene. Fear not, though. PEM is an all-season treasure whose family-friendly features should not be overlooked, no matter how many costumed freaks and creeps prowl the streets outside.
The museum’s Art & Nature Center is temporarily closed for renovation — it’s due to reopen next spring — but its Pop-Up Art & Nature Center exhibit offers plenty to do, too, from hands-on art making to storytelling sessions to Gallery Discovery Kits with clues and color-coded maps for kids to follow. Catering to all ages and interests, from toddlers to adults, makes PEM a true treat of a North Shore family destination.
The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art
125 West Bay Road, Amherst; Tue-Fri 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Sat 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Sun noon-5 p.m.; adults $9; seniors, students, teachers, children under 18 $6; family admission (two adults and two children) $22.50; 413-658-1100, www.carlemuseum.org
I met Eric Carle in 1988 when I was assigned to interview him at his home in Northampton. It was nearly 15 years before he opened his eponymous museum, dedicated, he has said, “to the art of the picture book.”
I was pregnant with my daughter Sara, and delighted to be meeting the man whose books I’d already started collecting for her. As one might have expected from the guy behind the likable caterpillar, Carle was gracious and engaging. He shared his life story in generous detail, showed me how he painted on large sheets of tissue paper to make collages, and how he stored them in wide shallow drawers according to color palette. He even snipped a few pieces off for me so I could make my own art, and when the interview was over invited me to lunch. I complimented his salad dressing, and he gave me the recipe. He wished me luck with my baby as I left his house.
Years have passed, as though within the collapsed time frame of a children’s book. The baby grew up. Now she’s 23, a college graduate going to art school to study children’s book illustration, which is her passion. (I like to think it’s a result of her early exposure to Carle’s studio.)
But one of our all-time favorite shared experiences is the time we visited the Eric Carle Museum in Amherst. It was in 2008, Sara was 19, and the exhibit was a private collection of children’s illustrations from the 19th and 20th centuries. There were drawings and paintings from such children’s classics as Winnie the Pooh, Babar, Madeline, and Peter Rabbit — images that the two of us knew well, since we owned tattered reprints of them, bound between covers.
It was a completely different experience to see them framed and hung on a museum wall. For the first time, I noticed they were art — fine art — that didn’t exist only in service of a narrative. Sara was struck by how much more beautiful the pictures were in real life, how much more striking the composition and level of detail. (As if these epiphanies weren’t magical enough at the time, we literally happened upon Eric Carle, viewing the show.)
It’s ironic and, I think, a bit sad for illustrators that a measure of a successful children’s book is that it’s so engrossing you can hardly wait to turn the page. Too often it means you don’t appreciate the art within those pages. The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art taught me something Sara, and most other children, already know: the art of lingering.
Museum of Science, Butterfly Garden
1 Science Park, Boston; Sat-Thu 9 a.m.-5 p.m., Fri 9 a.m.-9 p.m.;members (exhibit halls): free, members’ Butterfly Garden additional charge: adults $3, seniors $2.50, children $2; nonmembers (exhibit halls): adults $22, seniors $20, children (3-11) $19; nonmembers’ Butterfly Garden additional charge: adults $5, seniors $4.50, children $4; 617-723-2500; www.mos.org
The Museum of Science’s Butterfly Garden is impressive for lots of reasons, but I think my 10-year-old son, Josh, captured the exhibit’s true beauty: “You’re in a room with a 1,000 butterflies,” he said. “Usually that doesn’t happen.”
What does happen: You leave the rest of the museum behind and enter a warm conservatory that overlooks the Charles River, and is filled with tropical plants, and, on the day we visited, sunshine. Amid the fluttering butterflies — there are hundreds, but it feels like 1,000 — you’ll find fascinating information about their life cycles, feeding and courting behaviors, wing patterns, and camouflage strategies.
Josh and I were really hoping one of the butterflies would land on us, especially one of the exotic blue ones. Alas, that didn’t happen, but we were transported nonetheless. “I love the fake eyes [on their wings],” he said, as we re-entered the real world.
The Discovery Museums
177 Main St. (Route 27), Acton; Children’s Discovery Museum: Tue-Sun 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m.; Science Discovery Museum: Tue-Fri 1 p.m.-4:30 p.m., Sat-Sun 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; adults and children $11, under 1 and teachers free; 978-264-4200, email@example.com
It’s a rare place that can keep both of my children — 10 and 2½ — thrilled and occupied. The Discovery Museums are just that. You’ve got water tables, a jungle room, ladders and a play kitchen on the children’s side. You’ve got sound and recording studios, a cool magnet table, sand, water, sound and magnifying features on the science side. The kids will play together and be exhausted before they’re even halfway through. The family will want to buy a membership and plan a return visit.
Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House
399 Lexington Road, Concord; April 1-Oct. 31: Mon-Sat 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m., Sun 1-4:30 p.m.; Nov. 1-March 31: Mon-Fri 11 a.m.-3 p.m., Sat 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m., Sun, 1-4:30 p.m.; adults $9, seniors and students $8, children 6 and older $5, under 6 free; 978-369-4118, www.louisamayalcott.org
I grew up loving “Little Women” and all of Louisa May Alcott’s writings, and so did my daughter. We’ve often made the pilgrimage to Orchard House in Concord, where the Alcott family lived from 1858 to 1877, and where she wrote her beloved classic. Her father, an educator and leading transcendentalist, bought two houses that date from 1690 and joined the small tenant farmhouse to the main manor.
Now a National Historic Landmark, Orchard House was named for the 40 apple trees on the grounds. Guided tours are led by staffers, and since most of the furnishings on display belonged to the Alcotts, the rooms maintain their original look. “Scholars have made that comment that if the Alcotts showed up, they’d feel right at home,” says executive director Jan Turnquist.
Indeed, if you go on weekends around Christmastime, you will meet the Alcotts themselves — in period costume and character, at least. “Little Women” was translated into 50 languages, and visitors from around the world visit Orchard House. Turnquist believes it is because of Louisa May Alcott’s “timeless message” of following her instincts to find her own path in life. “The Alcotts were wonderful role models,” she says.
Addison Gallery of American Art
(boats in the basement)
180 Main St., Andover; Tue-Sat 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Sun 1-5 p.m.; free; 978-749-4015, www.andover.edu/museums/addison
Pound for pound — square inch for square inch? — the Addison is as good a museum as there is on this continent. From a complete set of Robert Frank’s photographs from “The Americans” to Marsden Hartley’s “Summer, Sea, Window, Red Curtain” to Winslow Homer’s “Eight Bells” to Stuart Davis’s “Red Cart” to . . . well, you get the idea. The Addison’s holdings are rich and glorious.
But for young museumgoers the great attractions don’t hang on any gallery walls. They sit in display cases: the 22 ship models in the basement. Some of the ships have famous names (Mayflower, Santa Maria, Half Moon, Clermont). Others have names known only to aficionados. All are objects of wonder, beautifully detailed, and marvels of balanced strength and delicacy. They represent motion arrested, yet very much implied. And should an appreciative museumgoer, old no less than young, want to emulate the speed of the original vessels, the Addison fronts on a very large expanse of very inviting lawn. On a windy day, it’s amazing how much an unzipped jacket can resemble a sail.