Explore Local History in Lights at the Neon Museum of Philadelphia
Most people are aware of the world-class Philadelphia museums scattered along the Ben Franklin Parkway, but some of the most rewarding places to visit with kids are those lesser-known gems tucked away into the corners of the city that focus on specific artistic genres. One of those gems is the Neon Museum of Philadelphia, where families can investigate the colorful history of local businesses, and appreciate the unique creativity of neon signage.
Located in Kensington's NextFab building, the Neon Museum opened in 2021, inhabiting a large white-walled space right next to jewelry and textile studios, metalworkers, woodworkers, and a bicycle shop. There's nothing else like it in the city, making it a favorite entry on our list of 10 Unique and Unusual Museums in Philadelphia for Teens and Tweens. Read on for everything to see and do at the Neon Museum of Philadelphia, and find more ways to dive into Philly's art and science scenes in our Guide to Philly Museums for Kids.
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Things to See and Do at the Neon Museum of Philadelphia
After my son and I paid admission, we were encouraged to explore the collection at our own pace. Over 150 neon signs of every size, shape, and description are affixed from floor to ceiling along the walls, reminding me of the way that art museums with limited space at the turn of the century used to exhibit their entire collection at once.
The space itself is no bigger than a large boutique, so we were immediately immersed in the collection, browsing and reading the plasticized information cards to learn more about the signs that caught our attention. We were able to really examine each sign up close, an option that wouldn't have existed when the signs still sat atop poles or high above Philadelphia buildings and tourist sites.
A nostalgic sign from an 80s skate shop
Among our favorites were a skateboarder who used to be on display in the 1980s at Zipperhead on South Street; a 1960s-era animated sign for a hair replacement center, which changed from bald to a full head of hair; and the life-sized 1950s Howard Johnson's lamplighter sign which was taller than my 11-year-old; not to mention a dancing Elvis, a beautiful vintage bubble clock, and delightful shapes from cows to a paint palette to an ice-cream cone.
Play the classic Philly game "Deadbox."
Corkboards are posted throughout the space for visitors to leave their own reflections on the artwork. Len Davidson, the founder of the museum, was present during our visit and served as a fount of information, and you're likely to catch him there on any given day. He encouraged patrons to play a version of the Philadelphia street game "Deadbox" in the central floor space of the museum. To play the game, players compete to flick bottle caps filled with wax around a board, attempting to hit numbered squares in sequence. If you hit another player's bottlecap with your own, they have to start over again. The goal is to make it to the end without crossing over the skull-and-bones symbol in the middle of the game board, which would also send a player back to the start.
The Neon Museum offers interactive educational opportunities that help guests connect with the art. Short videos play on a loop in one corner of the space, explaining more about neon art creation. In another area, several shelves contain a permanent collection of books on the same subject, in addition to general Philadelphia history.
Learn about the color process and how neon signs are made.
Completing our circuit of the space, we got a lesson in neon sign creation, thanks to a display about the different colors. When you visit, ask a staff member for an explanation of how the various colors are made. My son found it fascinating how many colors can be made from just two gases: neon and argon. All told, we spent about an hour and a half at the Neon Museum, without reading all the information that was available.
The Neon Museum of Philadelphia: Know Before You Go
Tickets: $10 for adults; free for ages 7 to 12, purchased for a specific date and time on the website. Please note that children under 7 are not admitted in an effort to keep hands off of the signs. Advance reservations are strongly advised, although walk-in visits are permitted when space allows. Check the website before arrival for Covid restrictions.
Hours: Friday: 4 pm to 8 pm, Saturday & Sunday: 12 pm to 5 pm
Location: Neon Museum of Philadelphia at NextFab
1800 North American St, Unit E (Southwest corner of North American and Berks Streets)
Philadelphia, PA 19122
Helpful Tips for Visiting the Neon Museum of Philadelphia
- Since touching the signs is not permitted, it's a better fit for older children; we recommend ages 10 and up.
- The special collection section contains artwork by local artists which sometimes centers on more adult themes. The collection is located behind dividers and isn't highly visible to the rest of the room. Take a peek inside first to decide whether or not to have your child view it.
- The museum is open for private events and could be a great venue for a teen birthday party, family reunion, or other celebration.
All photos by the author