Grandma and Grandpa are here from Arizona this week and I was very excited to take them along with Teddy and me as we visited the Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia. After years in much smaller digs, the museum has recently reopened in Memorial Hall, a grand building in Fairmount Park that was constructed for the 1876 Centennial Exhibition; it housed the original Philadelphia Museum of Art. We met my friend Bridget and her daughter Rachel, who like Teddy is three and a Montessori-educated child who loves to use her hands. The two of them didn’t stop once for almost three solid hours.
What I loved most about this museum is the aesthetics. It would be easy for a building this large to be intimidating to small children. But the rooms are all so beautiful and appealing that children are eager to explore the contents. Many rooms have huge windows; light pours in. The entrance to the museum is especially an especially splendid atrium that has been restored to full Victorian Technicolor. Visitors are greeted by a recreation of the torch from the Statue of Liberty made with found objects. It is an homage to the original arm, which was on display at the Centennial as a way to raise money for the creation of the entire statue (then people could walk up into it; this statue is for decorative purposes only).
And there are some really magical qualities about the design of the exhibits. In one area, replicas of familiar buildings from the Philadelphia skyline tower like a city of childhood dreams. A 50-foot ceiling offers a chance to send air planes soaring down from “outer space” where planets and stars float. Chubby clouds hover over the top of the water-play area. To walk down to the Alice in Wonderland exhibit on the first floor, you descend a ramp that circles a huge tree where a gleaming Cheshire cat grins.
The resurrection of this building feels like even more of an act of piety once one has visited the exhibit downstairs which includes a huge diorama of the 1876 Centennial Exhibition, a hugely ambitious fair that at one time included the largest building in the world. This fascinating exhibit is aimed primarily at adults, but there are a few things of interest on the perimeter including wonderfully shaped wooden blocks, dollhouses, and a train table, which occupied my child for long enough to let me read many of the panels.
I won’t list all of the many tactile and imaginative things to do (to see a description of many of them, see this article) but will just offer a few highlights of our day.
Teddy and Rachel both really enjoyed playing in the supermarket (much expanded from the original museum). Teddy had to fill his cart to overflowing with French bread (Hmm, where do you suppose he got that idea?)
He also enjoyed the baby dolls in the little “hospital” room. Each one was put back in its crib with a fresh diaper and a big kiss to help him or her (they are anatomically correct) feel better. Grandpa advised him as to the correct place to give a shot.
After a good long play in the toddler area, which has a nursery rhyme theme, Rachel and Teddy wandered the Wonderland maze and had tea with a life-sized Mad Hatter and March Hare. Then it was on to a room where one can feel very big, just like Alice.
But the most magical element of all for Little Chick was the restored 1908 carousel, which easily rivals the most beautiful ones the children rode in Paris. Horses, goats, rabbits, and pigs revolve joyfully, proud of their own splendor as the calliope plays. Tickets are separate from admission to the museum, and knowing my little one I purchased two. He and Rachel rode together and then after we said our goodbyes, we went back for one more ride, the last thing we did before trundling a tired but happy child out the door.
For more information, you can visit the website or see the special feature published by The Philadelphia Inquirer, which includes an interactive storybook that has 360-degree views of different areas of the museum.
A few tips…
- The museum opens at 9. Although the website says to avoid the morning because that is when school groups come, we arrived soon after it opened and found that it was fairly empty until around 11:30.
- The museum café has a great selection of reasonably priced food for parents and kids with lots of healthy choices. But you could also easily bring a picnic to eat in Fairmount Park on a nice day.
- The gift shop is a great toy and book store with lots of high-end educational toys.
- Parking costs five dollars for nonmembers. There seems to be plenty of it however, and it is immediately adjacent to the building.
- If your child has stamina and you wanted to make a really big day of it, the Philadelphia Zoo is a five-minute drive.