Last days of summer: Making museums exciting for kids

We still have a few days left before the school year begins. An escape seems like a good option – Why not do it in a museum?

Escape room at the Israel Museum (photo credit: COURTESY ISRAEL MUSEUM)
Escape room at the Israel Museum
On a particularly sweltering Thursday August afternoon, the Israel Museum in Jerusalem provides a welcome reprieve from the relentless Mediterranean sun.
Thanks to the generosity of a patron, entrance to the museum for children is free during the month of August and many parents are taking advantage of this opportunity to get their kids away from the ever-present screens they face at home. For these last dog days of summer at least, the museum is filled with children.
Because that is not always the case in general for museums the world over, the race is on to engage new patrons – especially young ones – and Israeli museums are taking on the challenge in order to stay relevant in today’s quick-moving, digital age.
“Some people are afraid to come to museums,” says Dan Lior, the Israel Museum’s marketing director.
“If they come with children, [the experience] is very passive. When we go abroad we always go to museums, but less so when we are in Israel. Museums are banging their heads to figure out a way to bring children in. Children’s expectation levels are so high these days; some people don’t have patience to go to museums anymore. You know there are people who have lived all their lives in Israel and have never been to the museum or to the Shrine of the Book to see the Dead Sea Scrolls? That is very sad.”
Noting the huge popularity of escape rooms, the museum decided to latch onto that fad and adapt it to the museum setting in what may be the first such attempt to do so in any museum.
They turned to Israeli escape room personality Cagliostro the Magician and his assistant Mayan Rogel to put together the all-important escape room scenario for the game and build the route throughout the museum using an imaginary character named Neura Shomron, a map and clues throughout the museum galleries. Participants must collect the clues in order to formulate the code they need to punch in at a fabricated wooden room at the end of the route to be “let out” of the escape room.
By using the young people’s own fads in their once-silent galleries, museums are also changing their own role in the cultural world. This afternoon at the museum during the escape-room run, families rushed from one exhibit to another, arguing over clues, shouting out in delight or frustration when a clue was or was not found – and not one museum guard came to hush anyone up.
Participation in the game is free, but the map must be purchased for NIS 15. The riddles are in both English and Hebrew, but no Arabic. Shomron also has her own Facebook page, blog and Instagram – for now all in Hebrew. The escape room run through August, and there are plans to run it again through the High Holy Days.
Being a museum and not just a room puts the escape-room concept at a slight disadvantage, since the participants are not enclosed in one space but can wander, and sometimes get disoriented, in the museum, despite the maps.
There are two routes to choose from and while my 11-year-old companion and I took the easier of the two, it was still quite a challenge, and sometimes a frustrating one at that. But when everything fell into place toward the end – as it should in an escape room – it all became quite clear.
“This allows people to visit and experience the museum with children, they go through the different exhibits and while they might not stop along the way, the idea of it is there in the back of their minds and they may come back to see it another time. They realize a museum doesn’t have to be scary. They can come for an hour and see one exhibit. They are not afraid anymore,” said Lior.
“I’m sure that now that we have done it other museums will pick up on the idea. This is very new in Israel and people love it, but in one or two years we will have to find something else [to grab people’s attention]. Today’s visitors are very complex and their demands are very high.”
NEXT DOOR to the Israel Museum, the Bible Lands Museum is also reaching out to younger patrons and has adapted its own museum version of the reality TV show The Amazing Race (in Israel known as The Race for the Million) for families, using a digital app that can be downloaded. Participants race against other people in their group in real time, challenged by riddles, physical missions and interactive games on a quest to find lost luggage and win prizes.
Though the game can be played one one’s own any day of the week by downloading the game app, organized group games were played on Wednesdays through August 23.
The museum introduced the game last Passover with the app. Seeing its popularity, they decided to expand the game to be more interactive for the participants playing it in real time by combining the digital world young people are connected to nowadays with physical missions they must complete within the galleries, said Aya Ezri, director of the BLMJ marketing department.
It took a group of sixth-grade boys a few moments to settle down and concentrate on the game after the novelty of being able to run and talk out loud in a museum wore off. Some of the missions were more challenging and interesting than others, but all fostered teamwork in the group, though some chose to do them individually on their own smartphones. A charged smartphone is a must to take part in the game.
Adapting the museum environment to the latest fads is the most effective way for museums to attract new, younger patrons, Ezri said.
“We wanted to do the maximum to connect people to the story of the museum, which tells the story of our roots in this region, using the digital language young people use while at the same time encouraging communication among them while they play the game,” said Ezri.
“We need to always look and learn and think of how to bring young people to the museum in a way that will interest them.”