Back in the days before I had children, I used to enjoy casually strolling through a museum's many galleries, delving deeper into compelling subjects by reading the carefully prepared text panels and labels, perhaps grabbing a latte before leaving, and rarely, if ever, visiting the public restrooms.
Ah, yes. Those were the good old days, but the good old days are long gone for me, and now I enter a museum in flurry of wailing children, flailing arms, excess baggage (literally and figuratively), and personal chaos. I look for the coatroom and the nearest child-approved exhibit and make my way through the galleries at break-neck speed until the children need food or a bathroom, or until I scream, "Uncle!" Whichever happens to come first. Of course, this is not how I would like to visit (reference the first paragraph), but it is reality. I have two very bright children who enjoy our trips to museums and the zoo, and my two-year-old, especially, has learned a lot from these excursions, but I find the trips frustrating for the overall lack of true family-friendliness.
I have worked in several museums, including a children's museum, so I know the lip-service we museum-folk tend to give to this subject. I am not talking about a plastic changing station in the women's room and men's room, I mean a real focus on what families need to make the most out of their limited time in the museum. Specialized text tracks, more and cleaner high chairs, little potties because the big ones are hard to sit on and scary when they flush, a designated nursing lounge, peanut free cafes offering gluten and dairy-free selections, and an ATM by the museum store for the cash you need to make the change the you need for the donation vortex. And the list goes on...
Hear me museum folk! You know the grubby little hands that feed you, how about returning the love?? To help you help me, here are a few suggestions on how to make some relatively quick, simple, and inexpensive changes or additions that would improve the family-friendly face you present to your audience.
In the galleries:
* Add a special "family track" of text panels using colorful graphics that draw the kids in and large-print fun facts or main ideas that moms and other chaperones can read from behind the stroller. Give us sound bites to drum into the children in 30 seconds or less (roughly the time it takes them to identify something else they'd like to investigate) and let us come back for more when we have the time and they have the patience.
* Place vinyl cut-outs on the floor in fun shapes and bright colors, indicating kid-friendly stops along the tour. These can act as bread crumbs to the small-fry, leading them from one cool/important place to the next, and they help adults unfamiliar with your museum hit the highlights on their trip.
* Use a fun character or cartoon animal to act as a family ambassador appearing throughout the museum on signage and materials that are aimed specifically at family visitors.
In the cafe:
* Add booster seats if you don't already have them. They are cheaper, easier to clean, and take up less room than ordinary high chairs. Plus, they offer toddlers (who hate high chairs) the boost they they need.
* Remember that many kids cannot even breathe near peanuts these days, so having PB&J or chicken nuggets fried in peanut oil on your menu is not family-friendly in 2009. Familiarize yourself with the latest information on food allergies and select accordingly. Adults with allergies will thank you too.
* Clean your high chairs regularly. I know this seems obvious, and you probably assume that someone at your museum is already doing this. Well, you know what they say about assuming anything... Get up close and personal with a high chair in your cafe, and see if you would want to put your mouth on it, because I guarantee you that anyone under the age of about 18 months who sits in that chair does want to and will.
In the restrooms:
* I know that a restroom re-do is probably beyond most people's budget this year, so a lowered sink and elementary school-sized potty are unlikely additions anytime soon. That said, a small plastic step-stool with rubber non-skid feet would be great for those shorties who want to wash their hands themselves, but can't quite reach. Here's where our character comes in. Stick a cut-out of him/her on the wall with a cheeky welcome message and place your bright, plastic step-stool right there in front of it. The stool is out of everyone else's way, but easily accessible to moms and kids.
* Remember that big potties are kind of scary to little kids just learning to use them-- they have a huge seat and make a lot of noise when flushed. Use another character cut-out on the door of your handicapped stall welcoming the "big kids" to their special corner and giving a thumbs-up. (By the way, all moms use this stall with their kids if it's unoccupied, because it has the most room for multiple occupants.)
* Try to keep strollers in mind when planning the footprint of your exhibits. Although many umbrella strollers can turn on a dime and fit through any space designed to ADA specifications, double-strollers are over-sized and cumbersome. Tight corners and hairpin turns are not kind to moms with more than one kid in her cart. If most other moms are like me, they see that space and skip it and your content entirely, moving on to friendlier confines.
* You may also want to reserve an empty (or at least uncluttered) corner here and there where strollers can be easily stashed. Even if you don't specifically label these spaces as stroller parking, families will find them and use them when they want to free the kids up to explore outside of the vehicle.
* Consider taking an unused office or over-sized closet somewhere and turning it into a "mother's room." These little nooks should have a solid door for privacy and can serve as a perfect escape for soothing a child having a tantrum, or nursing a hungry baby. A changing table, a comfortable chair with arms, and perhaps a little reading material about your family and children's education programs is all you need to have in there, and it doesn't need to be a big room for you to score HUGE points with moms everywhere. Trust me, moms hate nursing in public restrooms, for many obvious and odious reasons.
* Finally, if you can spare the space, consider the plight of the poor mom who has two kids under the age of four and is eight months pregnant... Isn't she almost as deserving of a close parking spot as someone needing a handicapped space? Couldn't you take one of the spots next to your handicapped spots, near the wheelchair/stroller ramp, and label it as "stork" parking for expectant mothers? You may have some days when you don't have any pregnant moms at your museum and it goes empty, but you will have other days when moms look forward to parking in that space and love you for it. Either way, your gesture of kindness will not go unnoticed.
This is a short list. In truth, there are many more ways to respond to the needs of your family visitors and make a huge difference in how much they enjoy themselves, whether or not they feel welcome and appreciated, and in how soon they want to return. Admittedly, when I worked on-staff and before I had a family, I knew little of what families really needed in order to make the most of their trip and feel comfortable in my museum. But now, I feel compelled to share these few pointers in hopes that soon some of my favorite museums will take heed of this friendly advice, and become truly family-friendly institutions.
Whatever you decide to do, don't think that your effort will be wasted. Moms talk, and for that matter, dads, nannies, and grandparents do too. What you are not doing now is probably damaging your reputation more than you know. In the same measure, making a few changes and accommodations will have a positive viral effect. Don't believe me? Ask any mom visiting your museum where the best and worst bathrooms are in town. They know the answer, and they have already told everyone they know about these places. Make a few changes and you can toot your own horn too. Put a note in your newsletter and your educational program brochure, but whatever you do, take families and their needs seriously. These are your members, your loyal repeat visitors, your target audience, and your future donor base. Identify with them, cater to them a little and reap the rewards