When my daughter turned two, my sister-in-law gave her a membership to Houston's Children’s Museum for her birthday. Ever since then, I’ve had kind of a love-hate relationship with it, but I think I’ve finally worn away the hate part.
On the surface the Children’s Museum is lovely. Lots of interactive exhibits that teach kids everything from science to commerce. There’s the Houston Public Library branch on the premises, where my daughter got her first library card this year (and where Daddy discovered he had never returned a copy of Breakfast at Tiffany’s he’d borrowed in 2002), and the obstacle courses in the basement to burn off energy. The museum always has something new going on, everything from multicultural exhibitions to celebrations of the work of Dr. Seuss to offering free vaccinations.
All this at one of the most reasonable prices for a museum trip in the city. Heck, since they built the McGovern Centennial Gardens, you don’t even have to pay to park anymore if you’re up to walking two blocks. So how could someone be enough of a grump to dislike the Children’s Museum?
In part because, well, it’s full of children. Not just children looking at things but children doing things. Hundreds of them careening off every surface, shooting puff balls at you from the pneumatic tubes, knocking over structures to learn physics and turning knobs and levers as fast as their arms will work. It’s loud and crowded and chaos.
My personal hell for a long time was the Tower of Power. It’s this climbable structure that reaches from the basement to the second level of the main floor. Like a lot of kids, my daughter for a long time vastly overestimated her bravery and stamina, leaving me running up and down stairs trying to locate where she was plaintively calling, “Dadddddddy?!” until I could find an opening several sizes too small to wiggle in and retrieve her. The words “Can I climb, Daddy?” actually started giving me hives for a while.
Then there are the water features outside. Theoretically you can race boats using locks, but I’ve certainly never been able to get it to work. All around you water is splashing off surfaces or outright pouring onto the ground from the pipe construction exhibit when kids abandon their water works for the next shiny thing. I once said to a nearby parent that I wished they’d just fill the exhibit with hand sanitizer instead of water.
To say nothing of the superhero musical they do every year…that song lives in my head for months after hearing it.
Nonetheless, I found myself there again recently while the kid was on Thanksgiving break. My wife works nights as a NICU nurse, so I generally have to get my daughter out of the house if she’s going to get any sleep. We were just in time for the beginning of Christmas celebrations at the museum.
Maybe it’s the holiday cheer, but my heart grew at least half a size. If there’s one thing that you can definitely say about the museum, it’s that it tries really, really hard. The craft projects may work better in theory than execution, the more cerebral exhibits may be aimed at a demographic more interested in playing than learning about winter holidays all over the world, and appearances by Santa and Spider-man may fail to break totally through disbelief, but behind all that there is a heart and a true energy from the staff that have become impossible not to love even if it’s with a bit of chagrin. In a way, it’s like being interrupted by my own child in the middle of something that very much needs getting done so she can show me a glitter collage adorning the message “I love you daddy until you are dead after which of course I won’t, duh.” You have to applaud the intent if not always the result.
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Our last trip, the kid and I ended up in one of the more quiet areas of the museum, the Invention Convention. It’s another one of those areas where I tend to roll my eyes because I can’t craft a decent paper rocket ship, frustrating both me and my daughter. On this occasion, though, we involved ourselves in making plastic spoon people out of tape, foil, construction paper and pipe cleaners.
I sometimes wonder if humans wouldn’t be better off if we spent more time coloring or doing papier-mâché because that half hour quietly helping each other make increasingly silly plastic spoon dolls was the most peaceful experience I think I’ve had in years. Our hands engaged and our minds focused on nothing but whimsy. I didn’t even check my phone once. At the end of it, we taped our dolls to a large motor at the end of the hall and watched our people dance back and forth thanks to the machine.
In a way it was a scale model of the whole principle of the Children’s Museum. Just a group of people taking time out of life to make a few little bits of fun and maybe learn something in the process. I still dislike the crowds and the noise and the bits that are broken, but being in there is sometimes helpful in reminding adults of what it’s like to be hungry for knowledge and experience when work and life leave us little time for both.