Grand Rapids Public Museum

The following post is written by Pit Stops for Kids’ Midwest contributor, Kate Basi.

Situated alongside the Grand River directly across (and linked by pedestrian bridges) from the heart of downtown, the Grand Rapids Public Museum houses an eclectic collection of historic, scientific, and cultural exhibits related to western Michigan. This imposing building, with its three-story wall of windows facing the river, is designed with an eye to beauty as well as function. Older kids will get more out of it than younger, but it has something for everyone in the family.

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In the three-story gallery overlooking the river, you’ll find classic cars, life-sized games of chess and Connect Four, and a horse-drawn street car that kids can climb on. Be sure to look up and enjoy the twinkling hangings made of round mirrors and Christmas lights—not to mention the full-sized whale skeleton suspended from the ceiling.

Little girls will love the doll room, which includes a table and play tea set. But the major exhibit on the first floor is “The Streets of Old Grand Rapids.” Here, volunteers staff replicas of historic Grand Rapids shops. The day we visited, a volunteer was using a foot-cranked printing press to create two- and three-color bookmarks, one color at a time. A great photo op in this exhibit is the old-fashioned bicycle, whose front wheel is so big, even adults have to stretch to maneuver the pedals.

As an added bonus, the first floor links to a pavilion built out over the river to house a beautiful restored carousel. Rides cost $1 a ride—a real bargain compared to the average mall carousel.

As you make your way through the museum, keep an eye out for the A to Z signs. (”H”, for instance, is for “hats,” and their collection is a lot of fun, ranging from the exotic to the downright kooky.)

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Most of the second floor is dedicated to the traveling exhibits and the planetarium. The planetarium is named after local hero Roger Chaffey, who was killed in the Apollo 1 disaster. At the time of our visit, the traveling exhibit was The Discovery of King Tut’s Tomb. We heard great things about the exhibit, but as we were on a limited time frame and had several children too young to appreciate it, we opted to bypass it.

The third-floor Western Michigan Habitats exhibit has a hefty “gross” factor that’s sure to impress young grade school boys, with a cutaway of the forest floor and a model of a drop of marsh water, magnified 200 times so every amoeba and flatworm has its full impact. Environmental consciousness is a big deal in western Michigan, but the exhibit about Lake Michigan brings the personal, local, and global issues surrounding sustainability into clear focus at a level of scientific authority that parents will appreciate and older kids will find accessible.

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Older kids will get more out of the Grand Rapids Public Museum than younger, but there are hands-on exhibits on all three levels, from building blocks outside the planetarium to hinged mystery windows inviting kids to guess which baby goes with which Western Michigan animal. Tucked into the information-dense water-and-forest exhibit on the third floor is a puppet theater and tree house play area to keep the little ones occupied while older siblings and parents absorb the displays.

Signage around the museum is very clear, with “Please touch” and “please don’t touch” signs including pictorial reminders for non-readers as well as words.

Planning your trip:

Give yourself at least three to four hours to see the museum itself, and all day if you want to get the most out of the traveling exhibits. There is a cafe on the second floor, offering soups, snacks, and other luncheon fare.

Daily admission is $8 for adults and $3 for children 3-17; kids 2 and under are free. The GRPM offers discounts to college students, AAA members, military personnel, and others. Planetarium shows add $4, and carousel rides are $1 apiece for non-members.

Note: Admission to visiting exhibits is priced separately (for King Tut, $18 for adults and $13 for kids 3-17) but includes general admission to the museum and a carousel ride.

Hours of Operation: 

9-5 Monday through Saturday and 12-5 on Sundays, with evening hours on Tuesday. Be aware that GRPM is closed on major holidays.

Location: 

272 Pearl St NW, Grand Rapids, MI.

Our family visited the Grand Rapids Public Museum as guests of Experience Grand Rapids.

About the author

Kathleen Basi Freelance writer Kathleen Basi has lived her entire life in "flyover country," but she's an old pro at road trips, having taken the first of many extended driving vacations at the tender age of five. She's a huge proponent of letting kids see and experience the space between "here" and "there." Find her at http://kathleenbasi.com/blog/.

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