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Revamped Seattle Asian Art Museum: Tips for Taking the Kids

The inside scoop on family-friendly features of beautiful SAAM

Published on: February 06, 2020

kids art section at the seattle asian art museum
Hands-on activity table in the gallery with Takashi Murakami’s “Flower Ball,” 2002. Credit: JiaYing Grygiel

Editor's note: With terrifically unlucky timing, the revamped Seattle Asian Art Museum had been open less than two months when the pandemic forced it to close again in early 2020. It's now reopening to the public Friday, May 28, 2021. Book tickets online, in advance.

The Seattle Asian Art Museum reopens this weekend after a three-year, $56-million renovation. Did you snag one of the 10,000 tickets to the free open house? Lucky you. It's been sold out for weeks.

Don’t worry if you missed out on the free tix. The Seattle Asian Art Museum is generous with its free days: admission is free for everyone on the first and second Thursday and first Saturday of every month. And the big open secret is that admission prices here are “suggested,” which means it’s by donation. You have to give something to get in, but you can decide how much.

LMN Architects in front of their project, the renovated Seattle Asian Art Museum. Credit: JiaYing Grygiel

I know this, because in a previous life I worked at the museum’s front desk. I loved my job. Visitors who came in the door were always relaxed and genuinely happy to be there. Volunteer Park is so peaceful and the Seattle Asian Art Museum is such a jewel that it’s just hard to be grumpy there.

The museum's building is the original home of the Seattle Art Museum (which is now spread across three locations in the city). The 87-year-old Art Deco building needed things such as seismic retrofitting, climate control and updated electrical to be done. The exterior was bumped out to add a freight elevator and a 2,650-square-foot special exhibition gallery.

SAAM's Color in Clay gallery, where the ceramic pieces are intentionally uncaptioned. Credit: JiaYing Grygiel

Visiting with kids

You will definitely want to bring the family to check out this renovated museum. Here’s how I’d do it:

Wait a few weeks to bring the kids, so that the hullabaloo can die down. As for opening weekend, I don’t know where 10,000 people are going to park (there’s a handful of free parking spots in front of the museum) and I don’t want to think about 10,000 people using the one restroom.

The Seattle Asian Art Museum I love is a serene gem in the oasis of Volunteer Park. I’d pick a weekday morning, when I know the museum will be quiet, and when the weather is decent so you can combine a museum outing with playground time. There’s an excellent playground in Volunteer Park, plus the beautiful Volunteer Park Conservatory is just down the drive.

SAAM sits in the serene surroundings of Seattle's Volunteer Park. Credit: JiaYing Grygiel

SAAM's new features

So, what is new and different at the museum? A lot of that $56 million got spent on stuff you can’t see, such as structural and mechanical upgrades. There’s a somewhat controversial glass-enclosed addition jutting out the back of the building, intended to more closely connect the museum with the surrounding park.

Downstairs, you can peek into the new Asian paintings conservation lab, the first of its kind on the West Coast.

Floor-to-ceiling windows in the new addition at the rear of the museum provide a view of the park. Credit: JiaYing Grygiel

I overheard a woman in the lobby tell her friend she was going to look for “the ladies’ room,” and her friend leaned in to correct her: There’s just one all-gender restroom for everyone, with multiple stalls. At least the individual stall doors are pretty tall.

I was really disappointed that the children’s play room, which used to cap off one wing of the building's main floor, is now a meditation room featuring three large Buddhas. I get that young families aren’t the only people who visit the museum, but it was awfully nice to have a little break room that was always stocked with dress-up clothes, puppets and books for kids.

In the galleries

Inside the galleries, there are a few nods to the youngest visitors. We found some shapes on a table to arrange into faces, set in view of a bright round flower painting. We tried to play a somewhat glitchy game where you can strike poses to match the hand positions of some of the museum’s statues.

Japanese firefighter's quilted coat from the 19th century with rabbits pounding mochi on the back. Credit: JiaYing Grygiel

What’s unusual about the galleries is that the art isn’t organized by country or time period, but by broad themes, such as “divine bodies” and “color and play.” You’ll see contemporary objects plunked next to really old stuff, a little hodge-podgy but fun to look at. Explore the galleries and you’ll discover all kinds of neat treasures. Here’s a few that caught our attention:

  • Tiny Japanese netsuke in funny shapes: three puppies, a cow and her calf, a dog scratching its neck.
  • A fireman’s quilted coat from 19th century Japan, featuring rabbits pounding mochi on the back.
  • An ultra-modern, bright orange bull made of plastic. (It’s Nandi, the sacred bull that’s a vehicle of the Hindu god Shiva.) 
  • A Guanyin from 16th century China with 11 heads!
SAAM-guanyin-buddha-renovated galleries-stuff-to-see-with-kids-families
Thousand-armed, 11-headed Guanyin from 16th century China. Credit: JiaYing Grygiel

There’s a new education lab downstairs that will be an open drop-in studio that's available to visiting families any time a school group isn’t using it. When we visited on a preview day, the room was still pristine. “It’ll never be this quiet, it’ll never be this clean,” said Regan Pro, the museum’s deputy director of education and public engagement. “And that’s glorious.”

The brand-new education lab at SAAM. Credit: JiaYing Grygiel

And one more piece of terrific news for kids: All public school field trips to the Seattle Asian Art Museum — each of SAM’s three sites, actually — are now free. For Title 1 schools, where a high percentage of the students live in low-income households, that even includes free transportation. Way to go, SAM!

If you go...

Find it: Seattle Asian Art Museum is located at 1400 E. Prospect St., in Seattle's Volunteer Park.

When: After its three-year closure and renovation, the museum reopens to the public with a free open house, Saturday–Sunday, Feb. 8–9. Note that all opening weekend tickets have been claimed. Walk-ups will not get in, though there is a free outdoor ribbon cutting ceremony.

Ribbon-cutting: The public is invited to a free, outdoor ribbon-cutting ceremony on the front steps of the museum Saturday, Feb. 8, 8:30–9 a.m. Expect remarks by Chief Sealth descendant Ken Workman, Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal and others, and a lion dance performance.

Hours: Regular hours begin Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2020. The museum is open Wednesday, Friday and Sunday, 10 a.m.–5 p.m.; Thursday, 10 a.m.–9 p.m.; and Saturday, 9 a.m.–5 p.m. It's closed Monday and Tuesday.

Admission: Adults are $14.99; teens ages 15–18 and students with ID are $9.99; youth ages 14 and younger get in free. These are the museum’s suggested prices, which means you can give any other amount, more or less, for your entry donation.

Free days: First and second Thursdays and first Saturdays of each month.

Parking: Free in Volunteer Park

Parents should know: The museum is fully accessible. You can bring a snack and eat it in the courtyard; no food is allowed in the galleries. There isn’t any food for purchase on site. The nearest place to eat is the wonderful Volunteer Park Cafe, located two blocks outside the park. (It’s up for sale!)

More to do in Volunteer Park:

  • Play at the playground, which you'll find about 300 yards to the north of the museum.
  • Visit the lush Volunteer Park Conservatory.
  • Climb the Volunteer Park water tower.
  • Spy the Space Needle through "Black Sun," the 1969 sculpture by Isamu Noguchi.
  • Strike a pose by of one of SAAM’s regal Bactrian camels.

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