My wife and I packed our three children into the car and drove south into the corn and soybean fields of Illinois. We were taking the kids on a sampling tour of downstate children’s museums, searching for that rare find: something to keep the little angels occupied while also providing some adult entertainment. We chose downstate Illinois because our membership at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry comes with complimentary entry to its partner museums around the world. Since we aren’t planning to take the kids to Berlin or Tokyo anytime soon, we searched a little closer to home.
Our first stop was the Peoria Riverfront Museum. The museum has two halves – one for the body, and one for the mind. Tests of athletic skill dominated the first half of our visit. How many free-throws could I make in 60 seconds? What was my vertical leap? How fast could I throw a baseball? I was having fun, and had to periodically remind myself that I had three children to look after.
The riverfront in the museum’s name refers to the Illinois River, and there was an exhibit extolling the virtues of the waterway. Posters explained the river’s history, ecology, and other learny things, but there was also a real canoe in the middle of it all. Our children answered the clarion call – why bother with knowledge when there’s a canoe to get in and out of?
Water stations have become mandatory in children’s museums, and Peoria’s was no exception (you read it here first: in 20 years this water station phenomenon will have created a glut of hydraulic engineers, who will replace lawyers as the punchlines to jokes). My children played with the pipes and canals and water wheels, until I made them put on the plastic smocks, at which point they lost all interest.
The brainy half of the museum is mostly the history of Peoria. That’s all I learned because the history of Peoria includes the Caterpillar exhibit, which includes a large box of sand and some toy bulldozers. Peoria’s history will have to wait as the rest of my time was spent stopping our three-year-old daughter from dumping the sand on the floor.
Our next stop, 60 miles southeast on I-74, was the Children’s Discovery Museum in the exceptionally-monikered town of Normal. Of the three museums we visited, Normal’s was the largest and adhered closest to current children’s museum standards (dare I say, it was the most normal?).
One entire corner of the three-story structure was taken up with a rope web to climb in. The water station had boats and fountains. The full-sized tractor to sit in had a video screen showing the view a farmer would see while harvesting crops (why, oh why, is there always a line for that?). My wife and our oldest daughter, the only two in the family with an interest in art beyond the mess it can make, found the painting room – a space enclosed by clear plastic walls with troughs running along the base. Participants can paint on the walls with water colors, their inverted creations visible to everyone walking past the outside of the room, and then use a squeegee to erase the mess into the trough. My wife and daughter enjoyed themselves, pushing on the boundaries of human expression, while I followed the younger two back to the tractor, entranced by the video of corn being harvested.
It was an up-to-date, clean, and well-appointed museum. It was also the only one of the three that I got drowsy in. There was nothing for a non-painting adult to do except police the inmates. The museum’s curators might have recognized that issue; to their credit, there were benches on which to slouch near every activity station.
The kids enjoyed themselves, and didn’t want to leave, but they had parked themselves in front of those old chestnuts, a wooden train set and a grocery store checkout counter. They weren’t exploring new horizons.
Our tour wound up at Orpheum Children’s Museum in Champaign. The Orpheum was the smallest and most dated of the three. It was also the only one that had live animals – there were some lizards, turtles, and cockroaches. Specifically, they were Madagascar cockroaches, the largest cockroaches in the world (even bigger than those I used to share an apartment with when I lived in New Orleans).
Oddly, the live animals did not hold my children’s interest half as much as the fake ones in the veterinary clinic exhibit. All three of them put on grey lab coats and performed examinations on stuffed animal after stuffed animal.
Instead of sitting in a tractor watching a corn-harvesting video, at the Orpheum our children manned the helm of a tugboat while watching video of longshoremen lassoing cargo ships. They hardly blinked, lest they miss a single action-packed moment. Lucky for me, nearby was the falling ball maze. I could arrange a series of slats to direct the descent of a plastic ball. The trick was to keep the speed of the ball in check so that it didn’t fly off the maze and into the vet’s office. The challenge had me enrapt: me versus gravity, mano a mano. Adding to its allure, the maze was decidedly low-tech and looked to have been built shortly after Isaac Newton wrote up the Universal Law of Gravitation. Eventually I noticed two kids and an impatient mom standing behind me. Okay, okay. you can have a turn.
Meanwhile, my wife had reached her limit of facilitating vet visits, and we brought the most unlikely-themed weekend in Illinois tourism history to an end.