Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead book cover

When my daughter was smaller, one of our greatest pleasures was walking to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts from our brick colonial in Richmond. We didn’t stay long—toddler attention spans are short—but we visited frequently and never tired of things to discover. Some favorites included Barkley Hendricks and Kehinde Wiley portraits, decorative arts collections, and African masks and textiles.

Fast-forward almost a decade and, to my surprise, a new and very different kind of museum has captured our joint attention in 2023—selfie museums. So, what is a selfie museum? It’s a novel gallery that showcases a different kind of collection: photo backdrops designed for visitors to strike a pose and photograph themselves. They’ve been cropping up all over the country since 2019. And while on one hand they seem to cater to the silliest, most superficial elements of our society, they are also pretty entertaining and well worth a look by parents eager for fresh ways to bond with kids.

Selfie Museums aren’t a destination in and of themselves. This is not waterpark-level or NBA game-level fun. They’re more like a pleasant way to spend a little time. My daughter outwardly enjoyed the museum and, when asked if she would recommend it to friends, gave a qualified yes. Her exact words: “It’s not the most fun thing ever to do.” That sounds like faint praise, but is a ringing endorsement in the too-cool-for-everything world of tween talk.

We stumbled into the Photoverse Selfie Museum at 3rd Street Market in Milwaukee one afternoon. We had some time to kill before an Admirals game where my daughter’s choir was performing the national anthem. We had salads from the Greenhouse in the market, then hopped from selfie booth to selfie booth, making faces and doing silly poses for about 40 minutes.

Honestly, the museum reminded me of a tween version of the imaginative play stations that used to occupy her for hours at children’s museums when she was a preschooler. But instead of dutifully piling fake produce into her cart or circling through the faux checkout line, she brought her own energy to the wacky displays. One selfie station brought out her dance moves, while another prompted me to reenact an ad for a piano course. The backdrops set the scene but we, the characters, drove the plot. And the whole thing sparked some needed connection and humor together, on her plane.

Of course, being the mom that I am, I couldn’t help but try to make the selfie museum experience educational, and so I’ll share with you my lessons learned about enriching this cute bonding experience. Here are three ways you can add some depth to the shallows.

Dig into the museum’s origin story.

Luckily, this particular museum was produced by the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design, so we could use it as a point of departure to talk about the fine arts school, the degree programs it offers, and the kinds of careers its students embark upon—30 percent open their own businesses. This sparked all kinds of open-ended questions and conversation: What would it mean, for example, to study illustration, animation, or communication design versus English, business, or some of the other paths highlighted at colleges my daughter’s visited? Does she think she might like to build a portfolio in the pre-college summer and weekend programs they offer when she’s in high school? Or attend the summer camp that dives into drawing, painting, printmaking, and ceramics with middle schoolers?

The point is that every museum (selfie museums included) has an origin story, and digging into who started it and why can lead you down some interesting paths. The conversation that results from the experience can have an impact far beyond the life of your child’s interest in the snapshots.

Converse and build vocabulary.

Remember, the key to dialogue with kids at any age is to TALK (Take turns, Ask questions, Label and point, and Keep the conversation going). Depending on the photo booth’s content, your child’s age, and your creativity, you’ll be able to introduce some new vocabulary during the experience. For the youngest visitors, colors, shapes, and textures are easy objects of conversation. Take opportunities to teach variations of words they know. Is the piano blue? Or, is teal or turquoise a more fitting word choice? 

With kids of any age, and especially older ones, use the displays and the whole experience to spark more personal conversation. The point is to connect with your child, get them talking, listen to what they have to say, and share your own ideas. The richer and wider-ranging your discussions with your child over the years, the richer their own thinking and vocabularies will be. Not to mention, the richer and deeper your relationship.

Go on a treasure hunt.

Those who’ve read my book, Reading for Our Lives, know that I’m a huge fan of I Spy. It’s a fun, free, search-and-find game that can be played anytime, anywhere. If you’ve got little kids in tow, consider sending them searching for letter sounds, rhyming words, or whatever literacy skill you’re working on, before they strike a pose. Simply say, “I spy with my little eye…” and fill in the blank. You could have them look for a specific object in the museum—say, a book—by giving a hint: “I spy with my little eye something that rhymes with hook.” The child may point to the object in question, which is great. But also encourage them to name it. 

Here are some literacy-building I Spy variations to try with younger kids (for older kids, just scroll down):

  • Shapes, e.g. I spy something that’s square.
  • Colors, e.g. I spy something red.
  • Letters, e.g. I spy the letter T.
  • Letter Sounds, e.g. I spy the letter that says /s/.
  • Rhyming, e.g. I spy something that rhymes with stair.
  • Onsets and rimes, e.g. I spy something that starts with the /k/ sound.
  • Ending sounds, e.g. I spy something that ends with the /r/ sound.

With tweens, you can skip the “I spy with my little eye” preamble and just bring their attention to some surprising element on display, or prompt them to guess what you’re thinking about in a particular section. You might note a piece of antiquated technology, a cool color or texture, or maybe something that reminds you of something you both know about—a film, video, place, book or any other shared memory. Give clues if they’re up for playing along, or just draw them out with a thoughtful question.

For example: You might say, “Well, that makes me laugh! It makes me think of that ping pong table at Juiceland…” or “Wow, I see something that looks like [insert favorite celebrity] would wear…” and see if they rise to the bait. Chances are they won’t be able to resist trying to guess what you’re referring to. And as you look beyond the obvious, draw connections or inferences, and voice opinions, you’ll be building up your family language of shared references and experiences.

Selfie museums, rooted as they are in the current moment with a gaze turned to oneself, may not offer the lessons we traditionally associate with museums, such as insight into historical objects or exposure to diverse cultures. But they can still be points of departure for reflection, conversation, critical thinking, and comparison. Darn near anything can create opportunities for dialogue, expression, and connection.

The bottom line is that learning can and should happen everywhere—even the selfie museum—and it doesn’t have to detract from the fun. 

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