Whenever I visit a natural history museum, especially if I’m intent on seeing the dinosaurs, I try to arrive early and race over to the exhibits before the school groups and strollers are set loose upon the floor. And I’m not alone in my concerns. As I’ve chatted with other museum-goers, the same lament has come up over and over again: as a culture, we’ve been steadily nudging natural history museums to become more like theme parks or the cartoonish restaurant chain Chuck E Cheese’s. (As Tiffany Jenkins has pointed out, the same problems plague today’s anthropology and art institutions as well, not to mention aquariums and zoos.) If visitors leave with even a chunklet of new knowledge, it’s a win.
Museums were originally meant to be places of inspiration, literally the ‘seat of the Muses’. In our 21st-century interpretation, however, we expect them to function as providers of kid-oriented entertainment more than anything else.
Maybe so but on the whole they were not particularly inspiring. Inspiration was mostly imported by visitors, at least that's my memory of the museum experience. Do adults learn much from museums anyway?
One needs a fair amount of background knowledge to make the most of museums. Attracting kids may encourage a few of them to go away and acquire it. Not many perhaps, but at least as many as in more sedate but also duller times.