Rule #1 of travel with two kids under 4: Get the munchkins out of the rental house, or they will destroy the rental house.
Thus it was that during our recent trip to Williamstown — that bucolic green-hilled town in Western Massachusetts — we quested for an activity.
“What about that modern art museum in North Adams called MASS MoCA?” asked my mother as she raced to stop my daughter from tipping over a bookshelf.
“I’ve heard great things about MASS MoCA,” I said, “but is it good for kids? Specifically: little, frequently naughty kids?”
Turns out the resounding answer to that question is: YES. The museum is brilliant for hours (and frankly, DAYS) of enjoyment, enlightenment and entertainment for all ages. Truly — ALL ages.
Here’s the first reason: MASS MoCA is in a 250,000 square foot building complex that rambunctious children can sprint through with abandon, even when rain is pouring down outside and making outdoor activities impossible, as it was the day we visited.
Because the structure used to be a textile printing mill (one of the best in the country from 1860-1942), it is hardy enough to withstand little fists pummeling its walls, wee feet pounding its floors, and so on. Sure, there are no-touch zones, but they are well-guarded. Just look at this inviting sprint vista!
Second: MASS MoCA is fully interactive. Most notably, there are two entire rooms of giant instruments for children (and their giddy adult chaperones) to play!
These instruments were hand-crafted by local New England artist, Gunnar Schonbeck, from scavenged materials — including a flip flop that Devi relished smacking against a xylophone.
I think the little guy tried out 30 different instruments in the hour we spent in the music rooms. See the glee on his face as he pounded on the drum (three times his height) while scream-singing, “TINKLE LITTLE STAAAAA!”?
Below is the rapturous face of my 1.5-year-old, Joji, as she plunked the poofy mallet to make, “DONG! DONG!” gongs. You can almost see the neurons developing as she realizes how this form of music works. The educating power of museums in action…
Third: MASS MoCA is committed to being an inclusive place for artists and visitors from all backgrounds. Many of its works of art address profound social issues — race, equality, and gender — yet do it in a way that is both powerful and beautiful.
Let us take the Nick Cave installation, “Until” as a stunning example. When you enter the football field sized room, 16,000 sparkling wind spinners stretch as far as the eye can see, like this:
As sunlight from the towering windows pours in, the spinners dance in glittering luminance, and your heart leaps with the beauty. You start walking the path through the spinners, noting the beautiful colors and shapes, when suddenly, you notice something… is that a gun???
These subtle symbols hidden under the beauty are the key to Nick Cave’s brilliant piece. Cave, a Black artist, conceived of this piece while pondering, “Is there racism in heaven?”
The spinner section shows the dangers of racism hidden around us that are all too easy for those who can ignore them to choose to ignore, just focusing on the shiny and pretty.
“Until” is ultimately hopeful, as the path culminates in the cliff pictured below, hand knotted from over 100,000 plastic pony beads and shoelaces. As I watched my light-skinned son gleefully racing around these cliffs, oblivious to everything but the fun and pretty colors, I thought about the conversations I have and haven’t had with him about race, privilege, and being an active ally of positive world change. I vowed to do better.
Huge thank you to Nick Cave for creating such a work of genius, and thank you to MASS MoCA for the space and light to make it shine — literally.
Just as a great movie has layers for both children and adults to enjoy simultaneously, a great museum or work of art does, too. “Until” is a perfect example of how MASS MoCA meets all ages exactly where they are, exciting and educating everyone.
The fourth reason MASS MoCA is such a joy to visit is the sense of adventure and exploration. You can follow the map, or you can just walk and walk to discover. Loops mean you never have to backtrack, and part of the delight comes from stumbling across details, like a bridge of sounds!
There is an art to restoring a historic building, and MASS MoCA has done it with such mastery that I spent much of our visit clutching my heart and pointing out the ingenious architectural details.
Think how many choices went into renovating the 100+ year old building. “Should we strip the paint on this wall entirely or partially? Should we knock down this section of the brick, or keep it?” Every choice made was spot-on, and weaves with the art perfectly.
Meanwhile, the creamy, buttery light pours through the sky-high windows and drapes every inch of the museum in glow-th. (Is that a word? If not, it should be.) Over and over, I saw how the museum building itself influenced the shape of the art created. Just look at this silver knot and how it plays off the colors and columns of its surroundings:
On top of this, the architecture’s layers of windows mean that you can be wandering in one exhibit, and suddenly come upon a 30-foot high window peeking back into a new angle of the exhibit you left an hour ago! Devi loved leaning against this portal, watching the “Until” spinners from his hidden vantage point.
Turns out you can even rent sections of MASS MoCA for events, including weddings! (The Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA also uses its gorgeous space for events.) My mind raced with the parties one could throw in the luscious green courtyard, or in this chunky, fairy-light-swathed hall…
The fifth and final (for this article) reason that MASS MoCA is must-visit is the Sol LeWitt exhibit: a maze of towering, color-singing wall paintings spanning over an acre of the museum.
Devi’s reaction: “Mama! Big colors!!! What’s behind this wall? Let’s go see! Let’s go see!”
These 105 paintings by the New England native are camera candy. My only warning for parents is that, even though the walls are exposed, little fingers should not touch them because oily fingers damage the pretty.
2022 update: The following photo was recently turned into a giant billboard for a Massachusetts tourism campaign!
At one point I heard, “DONK!” and turned to find Devi conking his sister’s little noggin against the wall as she cackled, delighted.
“Don’t touch the wall!” I yelled, racing to save the art.
“I’m not using my hands, Mama!” replied Devi innocently, giving his sister’s head another “DONK.”
Art-lovers, please control your children better than I did that shameful moment.
So there you have the account of our day of happiness and interaction at MASS MoCA. But wait — I didn’t even reveal yet that there’s a dedicated kids’ play room replete with art supplies and climbing structures! It’s a testament to how good the museum is that we didn’t even need that room.
Another important parent point: There are multiple places to eat directly IN the museum, and I very much enjoyed my gourmet Vermont goat cheese salad for lunch as I overlooked the rainy courtyard.
Also, there are plentiful bathrooms, and they are restored from the historic mill style in a fabulous way. I’d show you photos, but it’s creepy to photograph populated bathrooms, let’s be honest.
If you’re planning a visit to MASS MoCA, I highly recommend spending at least a night in Williamstown, just a few minutes away.
If you haven’t booked yet, consider supporting this site through these affiliate links (which provide a small commission at no extra cost to you) to TripAdvisor for Williamstown-area hotel deals and VRBO for rental houses.
We rented a big place, stuffed it with extended family, and highly recommend it! Just… make sure you run the kids well at MASS MoCA so they’ll sleep during naptime, instead of throwing underwear down the rental house stairs.
So what do you think? If you’ve been to MASS MoCA, what were your experiences? If you haven’t been, does this seem like a place you’d like to go? Do share!
We were guests of MASS MoCA, but all opinions and mischievous children are my own.
The author, Lillie Marshall, is a 6-foot-tall National Board Certified Teacher of English, fitness fan, and mother of two who has been a public school educator since 2003. She launched Around the World “L” Travel and Life Blog in 2009, and over 4.2 million readers have now visited this site. Lillie also runs TeachingTraveling.com and DrawingsOf.com. Subscribe to her monthly newsletter, and follow @WorldLillie on social media!