Museum Mania: A Mother’s Guide to Kid Culture

written by HEATHER BRIAN | photography courtesy of FERNBANK MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY; HIGH MUSEUM OF ART;  TELLUS MUSEUM; JAMEY GUY

No more teachers, no more books! For little ones, the start of summer brings immeasurable joy in the promise of unstructured days filled with fun and adventure. But eventually, albeit subconsciously, children still ache to learn.

Fortunately, the greater Atlanta area is chock-full of museums to quench this thirst for knowledge, and with new and exciting exhibits awaiting, your youngsters should have no problem trading in their pool towels for an admission ticket this summer. To get a sneak peek, I toted along my own preschooler, Allie, and first-grader, Jack, for some in-depth exploration of our area’s favorite museums. 

NATURAL WONDERS INSIDE THE CITY:
FERNBANK MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY

AS WE ARRIVED east of downtown at Fernbank Museum of Natural History, I realized I had made a huge mistake … I didn’t allow nearly enough time for our visit. In their 25th anniversary year, our city’s renowned museum has more to offer than ever; with the new 75-acre outdoor expansion of “WildWoods” and “Fernbank Forest,” we could’ve explored all day without setting foot inside the actual museum, but my crew wanted to see everything, so we got going. 

With glorious blue skies and not-quite-Hotlanta temperatures, heading outdoors to check out the new “WildWoods” exhibit was the obvious choice. We sped through the museum’s Great Hall, quickly marveled at the enormous fossil casts of Argentinosaurus and Giganotosaurus, and exited near the newly opened exhibit. The kids ran full speed to a nature-inspired playground, darting in and out of tunnels and sliding to their heart’s content, while finding hidden sculptures of forest creatures around every corner. Adjacent is Creek Run, a re-creation of a creek environment where kids can rock-hop over running water and even change the water’s flow. 

We followed the boardwalk into the trees, encountered whimsical wooden “tree pods,” and eventually found ourselves at Adventure Outpost, a treehouse-like play area, complete with a rope bridge, tunnel and various climbing platforms. After I finally managed to pry them away, we continued to Nature Gallery, an inspired area filled with giant sweetgum sculptures, bug hotels and other nods to the unique creativity of nature. The boardwalk guided us onward, passing over wetlands and through the Isdell Wildlife Sanctuary, as we searched for pictures of the flora and fauna that were posted along the way.

Though there was no time to explore the remaining mile or so of trails through “Fern- bank Forest,” it ensures a return visit later this summer. With our growling bellies reminding us it was lunchtime, we grabbed a quick meal at the Fernbank Café, and prepared for some indoor adventures. We checked out a movie in the monstrous 4K Giant Screen Theater (what used to be IMAX), and then headed up to NatureQuest, another innovative, hands-on area geared toward young explorers.

It’s love at first sight as a multi-level clubhouse comes into view, and within seconds my kids were climbing through secret tunnels, over bridges and into a giant oak tree, without so much as a clue that they were actually learning. As if walking through a virtual waterfall and searching for hidden cave bats aren’t enough, there are also real animal residents to visit such as baby alligators, lizards, turtles and a yellow rat snake (that, to our delight, was very active that particular hour). I lost count of how many times I had to tell my children we were leaving. 

Worried that we might close the museum down, we hurried off to our last few stops. We poked into “Sensing Nature,” a permanent exhibit that examines the wonders of science through various experiments (think measuring sound waves in a giant tube of bouncing sand and gigantic bubble wands). We sped through one of Fernbank’s beloved classic exhibits, “A Walk Through Time in Georgia,” where we viewed re-imagined environments of our home state from present time to back before dinosaurs roamed the earth. Finally, we trekked to the special exhibit area, and caught the last days of “Wild Weather,” where we proceeded to inspect tornados, learned how hail is made and flew into a virtual hurricane. The kids were intrigued when they heard about the upcoming summer exhibit, “Mammoths and Mastodons,” which promised all new interactive learning opportunities. As the afternoon waned we longed for more, but it was closing time. “But we didn’t go to the store! We didn’t go back to the treehouse! I want to see the dinosaurs again!” Next time, I promised my kids, as we reluctantly said our goodbyes, already excitedly planning our next trip.

As the afternoon waned we longed for more, but it was closing time. “But we didn’t go to the store! We didn’t go back to the treehouse! I want to see the dinosaurs again!” Next time, I promised my kids, as we reluctantly said our goodbyes, already excitedly planning our next trip. fernbankmuseum.org

PICTURE-PERFECT PLAY DATE:
HIGH MUSEUM OF ART

AS MY DAUGHTER Allie and I entered the clean, white-walled building of Atlanta’s notorious High Museum of Art, we found ourselves instantly delighted. My little art-lover became wide-eyed as she gazed upon Molly Hatch’s “Physic Garden,” a two-story display of hand-painted dinner plates donning a floral theme. We peered through a wall of windows at a colorful, larger-than-life sculpture of peaches and pears. A youth orchestra performed in front of us, providing a classical soundtrack for our enjoyment. All this, and we hadn’t even moved past the lobby.

We continued on toward the Stent Family Wing, glancing upward at the brilliant white expanse of the Robinson Atrium, an architecturally astounding space designed by Richard Meier. Meier had always declared white to be his favorite color, explaining how “within it, you can see all the colors of the rainbow.” A few steps away sits the Greene Family Learning Gallery, the perfect place to get some hands-on art experience. Colorful and inviting, this interactive gallery includes five activity areas for little ones to explore. Allie was instantly drawn to a collection of custom-made puppets, which mimic the works of painter and poet Ashley Bryan (I was ordered to be the frog while she insisted upon a whale). We arranged plastic “sea glass” shapes on an illuminated table built with wooden blocks made to reflect the architectural shapes of the museum, placed artistic “junk” onto a magnetic wall and peeked into books reflecting the artists in the gallery (we found the whale!).

It happened to be Toddler Thursday, which meant even more fun was in store for my preschooler. We headed down to the Purple Workshop, where Allie was handed a wooden canvas and instructed to let her imagination run wild. The theme of the month being architecture, the children were encouraged to paint and glue various tactile, 3-D shapes. After she had proudly shown off her creation to the workshop volunteers, Allie was given a pack of crayons and museum coloring notecards to take home.

We washed our messy hands, headed back to the atrium and walked up the ramps (which turned out to be an unexpected adventure in itself) over to the Anne Cox Chambers Wing for the Toddler Tour. Our group met under Hale Woodruff’s The Building of Savery Library, which in conjunction with the architecture theme, would serve as our inspiration. Our cheerful “tour guide” introduced the group to the museum’s mascot, a grey stuffed animal cat named Mattie Lou O’Kitty (a clever nod to Georgia Folk artist Mattie Lou O’Kelley), and the kids were instantly engaged. They were asked to name what they saw in the painting, what was being built, and then the real fun began. Could they make-believe that they were wooden planks? Could they pretend to be a roof? How about a whole house? Even the parents (ahem), couldn’t help but get in on the fun.

Afterward, we stopped in the main lobby for a snack at CJ’s Coffee Cart, (the onsite High Café is also available, featuring a full lunch menu, as well as Twelve Eighty, a restaurant located just outside the museum) and then headed off for more visually stimulating adventures. Allie was especially drawn to the folk art and the modern/contemporary collections (think bright colors and bold ideas) as we journeyed past more displays than we could ever fully digest in just one visit. This brought me to a satisfying conclusion … High Museum, we shall return. high.org

HIDDEN GEMS:
TELLUS SCIENCE MUSEUM

IF YOU DO YOUR RESEARCH, you’ll find that Atlanta’s world-class museums don’t just reside inside the Perimeter. To prove this theory, I shuttled my crew up Interstate 75 North to the Tellus Science Museum in Cartersville, to treat them to some scientific indulgence.

Rounding the corner into the parking lot, we caught sight of a towering wind turbine, the sleek observatory and the heavy machinery exhibit (FYI for boy mamas: the biggest dump truck they’ve ever seen!). On the walk toward the main entrance, we were drawn to the Georgia Rock Garden, a collection of large, various native rocks begging to be climbed. My children clearly got the hint, as they happily bounded from rock to rock.

Once inside, we were greeted by an astounding 82-foot fossil replica of an ancient Apatosaurus, prompting my dinosaur-loving daughter to head straight for the Fossil Gallery. If dinosaurs are your jam, look no further; we found ourselves surrounded by life-sized replicas of dinosaurs and even got our hands on actual fossils. “Wow! Touch this mommy!” my kids sang out, like music to my ears.

Next, my son gravitated toward the Millar Science in Motion Gallery, which displayed all things transportation. Front and center sat a majestic, full-scale replica of the 1903 Wright Flyer airplane. From the first vintage model cars to the first electric version, we journeyed through the evolution of the automobile. Other displays included a full-sized helicopter, jet engines and cockpits, a rocket model gallery and a replica of the Apollo 1 Command Module. I must admit, I found myself way too giddy that the museum had an actual moon rock.

Our next stop was the Collins Family My Big Backyard. With an inviting layout and an actual “backyard” feel, it is a young scientist’s dream come true. The kids ran straight to Discovery Garden, a special exhibit exploring the wonder of sounds (their obvious favorite was the decibel-measuring scream chamber). Inside a glass greenhouse were light experiments and curved mirrors, a giant tree that granted opportunities to control the weather and a small garage that enabled experimentation with electricity and magnetism. Jack anchored down at a magnetic gear wall and then a ball track. Given the chance, I’m pretty sure they both could’ve stayed forever. 

I lured them out with the promise of a movie at the Bentley Planetarium, where we gazed at a recreation of the starry night sky and then settled in for a short movie. As parents well know, kids can’t go too long without mentioning food, so we grabbed some healthy snacks at the Tellus Café, and then hurried over to the Weinman Mineral Gallery. Endless displays of colorful, sparkling gems and minerals had us oohing and aahing. Of course, we wouldn’t dare leave without partaking in some kid-friendly gem panning and fossil digging; the kids searched their hearts out until their tiny bags were filled with cherished treasures to take home. Little did they know that I too had collected treasures,

Little did they know that I too had collected treasures, only mine took the form of memories from our amazing day. tellusmuseum.org

SADDLE UP:
BOOTH WESTERN ART MUSEUM

HAVE MORE TIME TO SPEND in the Cartersville area? A quick 10-minute drive from Tellus will get you to The Booth Western Art Museum, which holds the largest collection of Western art in the country and includes Sagebrush Ranch, an interactive section just for children.

Inside Sagebrush Ranch, Rodeo Joe, the ranch foreman, is quick to welcome guests of all ages, but most of the fun is for the pint-sized visitors. Youngsters can dress up for a photo op in the Bunkhouse, where authentic Western wear awaits. In addition to the Bunkhouse, little ones will also enjoy exploring the Chuckwagon, the Puzzle Corral and the Branding Station.

Just like crossing the land on horseback, this adventure could take all day, especially for parents with an affinity for Ansel Adams photography and John F. Kennedy’s personal photographer Jaques Lowe. “The Kennedy Photography of Jaques Lowe” exhibit will run through Aug. 27 while “Ansel Adams: The Master Works” will run through Oct. 29.

Elsewhere in the Booth Museum is the opportunity to view various cowboy art, Native American art and artifacts as well as a letter from every U.S. President. The museum also offers summer programs and camps. Be sure to pick up a $2-off coupon while at Tellus or visit on Thursdays when the admission is free to unleash your child’s inner cowboy or cowgirl. boothmuseum.org

FRANKLY, MY DEAR:
MARIETTA GONE WITH THE WIND MUSEUM

SURE, YOU KNOW THE REST of that quote, but if you haven’t been inside the Marietta Gone with the Wind Museum — also known as Scarlett on the Square — it’s the perfect place to escape the heat and learn a few more facts about the famous book and movie.

Established in June 2002, the museum is home to a collection of “Gone with the Wind” memorabilia privately owned by Dr. Christopher Sullivan who first read the novel and saw the movie in his youth. Since those early days, he has assembled an impressive gallery of artifacts like foreign editions of the novel, including many of the 30 plus translations. You’ll find everything from Czechoslovakia, France, Portugal and Turkey to the five volumes from the Japanese movie edition of the novel as well as film posters from its worldwide fame.

Visitors will find plenty to occupy their attention with countless photos, props from the movie set, call sheets, scripts, movie seats from the premiere inside the Loews Grand Theater and incredible tidbits like how Margaret Mitchell decided on the book’s title.

Hint: she had recently read an anthology of Victorian poetry by Ernest Dowson and landed on a haunting line that evoked the perfect sense of loss and longing.

Much like the idea of running into Rhett Butler himself, the Marietta Gone with the Wind Museum is about as close as you’ll get to the real deal. gwtwmarietta.org