My fifth grader’s class recently went on a field trip to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Dorchester. Although I’ve taken my kids to many Boston museums, we had not visited the JFK Museum before, so I jumped at the chance to chaperone. For parents and educators alike, here is the lowdown on what you need to know when visiting the JFK Library and Museum with kids.
Before You Go
The museum has an excellent educational webpage for students with resources and activities, including lists of age-appropriate books, the story of the Space Race, behind the scenes with the Presidential Press Office, and an interactive timeline of the Civil Rights Movement. Whether you are bringing a whole class or just your child, I recommend exploring the Students section of the Library’s website before you go and revisiting it afterwards as well. It will help put the museum’s exhibits in context and enrich the learning experience. The website also has a cool interactive page, The President’s Desk.
These are some highlights of the museum and its exhibits, particularly of interest to the younger crowd:
Campaign Trail – The exhibit takes visitors through the sights and sounds of the 1960 Presidential race between Kennedy and Nixon. The kids I visited with were particularly interested in the reproduction of the Chicago television studio where the first televised debate took place, and the reporting of the election-night returns, which reveals how close the race was (one of the closest in American history).
The Space Race – The exhibit tells the story of President Kennedy’s challenge to America to beat the Russians to the moon before the end of the decade. (Challenge accepted and met!) Currently, the centerpiece of the exhibit is the Freedom 7 space capsule (on loan from the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum through December 2015), which took Alan Shepard, the first American to travel into space, on his historic mission.
The Pavilion – The Pavilion is magnificent, and it alone is worth the price of admission. The JFK Museum and Library was designed by I.M. Pei, a fact that is undeniable when you’re in the massive, glass-enclosed atrium, where a 300-pound flag hangs from the ceiling. I could have spent the whole day there, looking out at the sky, the harbor, and the city of Boston. Bonus: From May through October, you can see Kennedy’s boat, The Victura, on the lawn outside.
Events – In addition the regular exhibits and school group programs, the museum has a performance series for families (appropriate for ages 5 and up) called Celebrate!, featuring a line up of diverse and talented performers. Check the website for the performance schedule, and be aware that although the programs are free, they require registration in advance. The museum also hosts a grand Presidents’ Day celebration every year during February vacation, with a week full of family programs, discounts, and kid-friendly fare in the Café, including a make-your-own sundae bar.
Logistics and Tips
There is free parking at the museum – the trick is figuring out how to get there through all the UMass construction. Keep following the signs around the UMass campus, and eventually you will wind your way around to the museum.
The museum has a café, but it does not accommodate school groups. Teachers, plan to have the kids eat outside or on the bus.
The bathrooms are a little difficult to find, but they are roomy enough and have diaper changing stations and sinks in the wheelchair accessible stalls. Speaking of wheelchair accessibility, the museum is accessible.
The Boston Public Library and many other local libraries offer museum passes to the JFK Library and Museum.
A note about age appropriateness: We had never been to the museum before because I was concerned that my kids were too young. After finally visiting with my 11-year-old's class, I know now that my concerns were valid. Visiting with a baby in a carrier would be absolutely fine, but I wouldn’t take a child between the ages of 2 and 8. There are difficult topics explored in some of the museum’s exhibits, including President Kennedy's assassination. Plus, while the exhibits are fascinating for kids and adults who have studied the Civil Right Movement, the Presidency, elections, or other relevant subjects, it would be quite dull for most young children who have no framework for what they are seeing.
I hope to return to the JFK Library and Museum with my family during the warmer months, when we can enjoy a picnic on the museum’s grounds, a ten-acre park landscaped with trees, shrubs, and roses. Although the School Group Program we attended was stellar, I would like to have more time exploring the individual exhibits with my kids and experiencing the museum as a family.