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Take Your Family to Peru (with Help from Seattle Art Museum)

Funerary mask, 750-1375 A.D., Museo Oro del Perú, Lima
Funerary mask, 750-1375 A.D., Museo Oro del Perú, Lima

By Ashley Steel and Bill Richards

A new family-friendly exhibit is on display at the Seattle Art Museum, Peru: Kingdoms of the Sun and Moon. Golden artifacts, paintings, and stunning photographs are woven together with stories of archeologists who rediscovered a civilization and an indigenous people recovering from colonization.

There are 300 works in total, many of which are treasures never before seen outside of Peru. There’s something special for everyone – tiny silver dollhouse-sized furniture, a nativity chest with over 100 small figurines displayed at kid-level, stylized masks, archeological ethics, and discussions of religious transformation.

Two days ago, we knew little about Peru. Tonight our family is dreaming of a visit to Machu Picchu and beyond.

Engaging kids in the exhibit

Entering the exhibit, we were transported to Machu Picchu by a wall-size, time-lapse photograph projected on canvas. Kids will enjoy peeking around the back side of the photo and standing up next to the image to see the visitors pop in and out over time. There’s a 3000-year timeline, too for perspective.

The archeologists and explorers on display are characters right out of a movie and the black-and-white photos bring you up close to the amazing and enduring stonework at Machu Picchu. Kids can see a huge stone head and then look below for a photograph to describe where such an imposing object was originally located.

Treasure appears in the next series of rooms, starting with unusual bottles. Can your kids find a spouted bottle in the shape of a cat? A bottle with two necks that come together into one? The audio guide explains here about the importance of duality to the ancient Peruvian belief system – day and night, life and death, silver and gold. It’s a fascinating idea!

The duality of gender is displayed in a set of “unusual” bottles; you might want to be prepared to answer questions. These were a people without written language; the art on display holds the ideas and stories that are their cultural heritage. Ask your kids how they would convey their most important ideas to their children if they couldn’t write anything down. Not an easy task.

Kids of all ages will enjoy looking at the back of a funerary litter decorated with small figurines of ancestors.


'Back of litter,' 750-1375 A.D, Museo Oro del Perú, Lima
'Back of Litter,' 750-1375 A.D, Museo Oro del Perú, Lima


Each one is dressed in unique clothes and carries small instruments or weapons. The litter is decorated with gold, silver, turquoise, cinnabar, shells, and even feathers. Keep your kids on the lookout for nose ornaments (they’re bigger than you might expect) and giant golden gloves worn only by the dead.

Drinking cup decorated with standing figures, 750-1375, Museo Oro del Perú, Lima
Drinking cup decorated with standing figures, 750-1375, Museo Oro del Perú, Lima

There is so much intricately carved gold and silver in these rooms that even the youngest kids are likely to be entranced. Bring metallic crayons, black paper, and a clipboard to foster that enthusiasm.

One of our favorite items was a quipu, a beautifully displayed series of strings in which knots are used for accounting and record keeping. No one living knows how the system works anymore or what information is recorded on this Incan quipu. Can your kids figure it out? What do they need to count and how could they use a series of knots and string to accomplish the task?

'Quipu (Knotted-cord records),' 1450-1532 A.D.Quipu (Knotted-cord records), 1450 - 1532 A.D., Inca, Cotton; 31 1/2 × 66 1/8 × 3/16in. (80 × 168 × 0.5cm), Museo Larco, Lima - Perú
'Quipu (Knotted-cord Records),' 1450-1532 A.D., Museo Larco, Lima - Perú

Teens may be fascinated by the religious history described next. How did Catholicism take hold and what happened to the early religious icons and traditions of the indigenous people?

In the second to last room, there are several special objects and displays likely to be of particular interest to kids, for example, a giant silver bird with a mysterious keyed-panel on its back. Even toddlers will love this bird. Ask those teens how the bird was used to tell a religious story similar to the crucifixion of Jesus. The intricate silver-work on display behind the bird is mesmerizing. And how about the mask of the devil? What’s on his nose!? Take time here to enjoy the figurines in the altarpiece and nativity scene as well.

The Red Stairway, Cuzco 1954, Enrique Camino Brent
The Red Stairway, Cuzco 1954, Enrique Camino Brent

More Peruvian adventures

- Consider a Peruvian meal at Taste, on the first floor of the museum as a complement to the exhibit.  We indulged in Peruvian red quinoa salad and picaroles, warm cinnamon donuts with rich, liquid chocolate dipping sauce. (Molten chocolate has to be a sure-fire way to get your kids excited about art, museums, and ancient civilizations!) There is also a kid’s menu.

- On Saturday, Nov. 9, take a guided tour of the exhibit and attend the Golden Ornaments workshop ($15 for one adult and two kids, reservations required).

- On Saturday, Nov. 16, enjoy a free community celebration from 10 a.m.–3 p.m., with live music, tours, art making, performances, and workshops.

- Teens might enjoy Aguirre, the Wrath of God a 1972 film set in Peru (Friday, Nov. 22) or Teen Night Out on Dec. 5.

- Before heading to the new exhibit at S.A.M., we watched Treasures of Peru an installment of Dr. Dwayne L. Merry's nomadic travel series (available from Netflix). The film was mediocre at best but it made a big difference in our appreciation of the exhibit. We saw the exact same treasures on display that we had seen unearthed in the film and we arrived with a basic understanding of Peruvian history, ecology, and geography.

If you go ...

When: Peru: Kingdoms of the Sun and Moon will be at the Seattle Art museum until Jan. 5, 2014. The museum is open 10 a.m.–5 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday and Thursday nights the museum is open late.

Tickets: $12.50–$19.50 (kids and teens 19 and under free), which includes admission to other exhibits. Reserve tickets ahead of time (for the kids too). On First  Thursday, there is a reduced fee for the exhibit: $9 adults, $8 seniors and military, and $6 for students (kids 19 and under have free admission).

Age recommendation: The Seattle Art Museum is not a children's museum and, like most art exhibits, this exhibit is not aimed specifically at kids. However, a visit to Peru is likely to be a fun and educational family adventure with preparation and patience. (See also our tips on taking kids to museums.)

More tips: Consider borrowing the free audio guide to understand the exhibit in more detail. There’s an app as well, of course, and a podcast coming soon. Parents ready to dive into more depth might download the educator’s guide on the exhibit resources page for even more ideas.

About the authors: Bill Richards and Ashley Steel, Seattle-based writers on family travel, blog at Family on the Loose and recently authored and published  Family on the Loose: The Art of Traveling with Kids. Their book aims to help expand cultural horizons and help cultivate our next generation of global citizens through travel.

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