Since my kids seemed to have inherited some of my less-than-stellar qualities (social anxiety, math phobia, bucky beaver teeth) it seems right they should have inherited a few good ones too, like my love of museums. I remember my mother regularly taking my sisters and me to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to see exhibits and participate in workshops and I don't remember her ever having to force me to go. But my kids, who live in what is arguably the richest museum city in the world, always put up a fuss. Although they usually enjoy the experience once they go, we all have to live through a lot of whining and protesting (them) and yelling about how ungrateful they are (me), so the whole experience is relatively exhausting.
Until my daughter finally pointed out that they DO like museums, just not art museums. In other words, while seeing old paintings is a chore to them, they enjoy visiting science and history exhibits, a fact I somehow glossed over since I'm not as interested in those things. So in another humbling parenting lesson, I have to accept that if I want my kids to put down their screens and take in some culture, I better be prepared to meet them half-way.
Luckily, Paris is also full of science, history and anthropology-oriented museums. One of these is Quai Branly, aka the Museum of African, Asian, American and Oceanic Art and Civilization, aka the museum of primitive art. Through February, the museum is host to an exhibit on Mayan civilization, covering its long history from 2500 BC until its mysterious decline in around 950 AD. The exhibit is organized thematically covering the Mayans' everyday life, their relationship with nature, their religious and political systems, their beauty rituals, their funeral rites etc.
Be warned, those coming with young children should pace themselves because there is a lot to see: frescoes, pottery, jewelry, masks, mosaics, engraving, calendars. I didn't have a whole lot of specific knowledge about the Mayan culture beforehand, but the exhibit is very good at explaining their society and beliefs without getting too bogged down in details. Among the tidbits I learned, their famous 'apocalyptic' calendar did not foretell the end of the world, just predicted an important event. (In any case, the Mayans had a cyclical view of time, so the idea of an "end" was really antithetical to them). Sophisticated mathematicians and astronomers, they also developed a complex system of hieroglyphics and it's well worth taking the time to watch the short film describing how these glyphs were deciphered in the 19th and 20th centuries.
The kids particularly liked the ceramic figurines and the objects of sculpted precious stone, like the jade funeral masks. They were also fascinated with the more gruesome aspects of Mayan society, such as the way babies' heads were deformed to correspond to standards of beauty, and the blood rituals, which included self-mutilation and animal sacrifice (the Mayans apparently practiced human sacrifice as well, but the exhibit kind of skips over that).
I admit there are only so many old columns and bowls I can look at before my eyes start to glaze over, so by the end the kids and I were all ready for a stroll in the museum's gardens. Light years away from the usual French manicured style, the gardens at Quai Branly are deliberately lush, overgrown and exotic to reflect the nature of the museum's collection. They also afford an unusual view of the Eiffel Tower, which is only a stone's throw away.
I'll probably never stop trying to get my kids to love painting and sculpture. And since they live in friggin' Paris, I figure some art history will get through simply through osmosis. But I also hope they will never stop forcing me to step out of my comfort zone and learn more about ancient civilizations, which is apparently their jam. They must get it from their father.