Egyptian statue at the Penn Museum

The Penn Museum with kids

Visiting the Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology with Tommy and Teddy seemed like a no-brainer for our museum-loving family. For one thing, the museum owns over one million objects from all around the world, a collection few educational institutions can match. For another, both boys love history, which is emphasized in their school’s curriculum. Tommy, who just finished fourth grade, has covered everything from the ancient Egyptians to the Greeks, Romans, and native peoples of the United States and is always interested to learn more. So I’m a bit sad to report that we found the Penn Museum to be something less than thrilling.

Which isn’t to say that we didn’t have any fun or learn some new things, so why don’t I talk about that first?

Our favorite exhibit by far was the first one we visited. Human Evolution is tucked into a bit of a small corner, but it offers a clear and comprehensive explanation not only of how we as a species have changed over the ages but also of how this information has been discovered and by whom. Especially interesting is the row of skulls that demonstrate how much our brains have grown as we have evolved.

Human Evolution gallery at the Penn Museum

There is also an area where visitors can listen to the writings of different scientists and philosophers who made important contributions to the study of evolution, from Linnaeus to the Leakeys.

If your child likes the pharaohs than the Egypt gallery will certainly be a treat, as it is full of incredible statuary, columns, and (in a room off to the side), mummies. The story of how these objects were unearthed and brought to the university in the early twentieth century is interesting as well. Unfortunately, it is told on panels full of dense text that neither of my children was patient enough to read.

Egypt gallery at the Penn Museum

I did spend some time pointing things out to them that I read about – like the fact that the lower half of the Sphinx had been encased in sand and was therefore in nearly perfect condition in contrast to its sand-blasted face – but I wished that there had been more information provided at their level. I thought about the audio guides for children at the Roman Baths Museum in England and the scavenger hunts at the British Museum and saw this as a missed opportunity.

From Egypt, we moved to China. The boys were especially eager to see this part of the museum, since Matt visited the country in March and brought back stories and photos that intrigued them both. We weren’t disappointed by the objects themselves and especially liked this amazing crystal ball.

Chinese crystal ball at the Penn Museum

But once again, there was little in the gallery to really tell us what we were looking at and the boys lost interest fairly quickly, although Tommy was fascinated by the Buddhist temples in the Japan gallery next door.

Japanese Buddhist temple at the Penn Museum

We made a quick tour through Ancient Rome and Greece, discovering a few activities (some of which were broken) but although the exhibits here made a bit more of an effort to offer something for kids and also included a very interesting model of a Roman villa, by then the boys expectations were that nothing in the museum was really aimed at them.

Checking out tools from Ancient Greece at the Penn Museum

After we had been at the museum for just under two hours I looked at the boys and realized that although they were really making a game effort, neither of them was all that engaged. I briefly contemplated purchasing tickets for a special exhibit on the Mayans (which promised interactivity but cost extra) but thought better of it when I asked them if they wanted to go and they answered yes with relief. I smiled as Tommy worriedly asked me if we were leaving “too soon” like the hardworking travel blogger’s son that he is.

Riding the train home, Tommy assigned the museum a grade of B. “They have lots of cool stuff,” he said. “But I don’t feel like they really described the artifacts enough in the China part and in the Egypt part there were too many words to read. The best part was the Evolution exhibit because I understood everything there.”

It’s pretty unusual for me to give a museum a fair-to-middling grade, but I wanted to share our honest experience (and especially Tommy’s thoughtful impressions) because the Penn Museum is often listed as one of the must-see attractions in Philadelphia with kids. If you are visiting the city and have limited time there, I’d definitely give it a miss and spend your time instead at the Philadelphia Museum of Art or the Franklin Institute.

Travel-with-kids tips

  • I definitely don’t recommend this museum for children any younger than seven (which is how old Teddy is). There are no exhibits that are aimed at younger children; in fact it’s probably best for children who know how to read.
  • My understanding is that parking at the museum is limited, but it’s very easy to take the regional SEPTA train either from Center City Philadelphia or from the suburbs (we rode in from Delaware). The train station is right across the street from the museum.
  • The museum has a café, which we did not visit, but it’s probably your best bet for grabbing a snack or quick lunch if you didn’t bring one with you. The blocks near the museum are long and it took us a good ten minutes to walk to the nearest Starbucks for a drink when we were finished.

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Many thanks to Visit Philly for giving us a pass to visit the Penn Museum. And don’t miss my list of top things to do and see in Philadelphia at Expedia’s Kids in the City.

Reader Responses

2 fellow travelers had this to say

  1. Thanks for the honest review! I’m planning on taking my 11 year-old daughter to Philadelphia for the first time this fall and I’ll keep your review in mind!

  2. I’m actually glad for this post. It seems like a lot of travel bloggers have nothing but nice things to say about places they visit. I think I trust your opinion even more, now. Thanks a million!

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