In Cincinnati’s Union train station (a still working Amtrak station), there are three excellent museums for one entrance fee. They’re known collectively as the Cincinnati Museum Center. We checked them all out in April 2023, and highly recommend a visit to anyone passing through “the Queen City.”
The building itself is so gorgeous. (Here’s a video about its history and recent restoration.)
The three museums are The Children’s Museum, The Museum of Natural History and Science, and Cincinnati History Museum. [Also in the building are an Omnimax theater, and the Holocaust and Humanity Center, which we did not have enough time to see. We did see the temporary exhibit Bricktionary – LEGO A to Z. Click on that link for my review.]
The Children’s Museum
There was The Woods, an adventure playground with places to climb up, under, and through, while learning about woodland habitat. My 12 year old, who often feels like he has “outgrown” playgrounds had a great time exploring there.
I really liked the ball play area. You could load balls into pneumatic tubes and they’d shoot up high to be collected, and then dumped down. You could load up a bucket, use pulleys to raise it and dump it and watch the balls spiral down. You could use a crank to build up air pressure till a ball launched, tilt a target so the balls that hit it bounced off just right, or pedal a bike or run on a treadmill to power ball elevators to lift the balls high. Quite fun.
Some of their exhibits weren’t as strong as they could have been. The water play area was huge and had a cool water elevator, but there were only a few places where kids could interact with it (building dams or bridges with limited supplies / variation) or playing with water toys. The weird thing was that the toys floating here are actually for building sand castles and don’t work that well with water. With a quick trip to the dollar store in the summer, they could get better water toys.
The infant and toddler zone seemed really sparse, though we didn’t go in to explore.
And they had what must be a maker space, but there were no materials out on the tables to make anything with, and even the chalkboard horses seemed to be lacking chalk. (By hunting around, we finally found a few stubs.) Maybe this space is only open at certain times?
Here’s a sampler of some of the other activities.
An exhibit I quite liked was the rock quarry, which offered fun opportunities for collaborative play and using large equipment which kids love.
Overall, it was a fine children’s museum. If that had been our only activity of the day, it wouldn’t have been enough to keep up occupied for more than an hour or 1.5 hours (with our 12 year old… younger ones might have settled in to play for longer), but combined with the other museums, it was an enjoyable portion of our day.
Museum of Natural History and Science
We started in the dinosaur exhibit – I love how the dinosaur skeletons fill the concourse area of this beautiful building.
We played for quite a while in the Science Interactives Gallery, with the wind tube, the spinning wheel (similar to the one in this video), and the ball wall and the air cannons.
We went to the Science show… which was weirdly only about 5 minutes long. It was on the elements of combustion and she made a couple fire balls with flash powder, which was fun. But usually if you call people over for a show, it lasts longer and has a little more to it…
Then we did the Cave. I’ve never seen an exhibit quite like this at another museum. It is 500 feet of winding trails, descending down several stairs, coming back up. The air is cool, you hear the sound of water throughout – it feels like you’re in a cave!
Here’s what it sounds like:
Then we viewed an exhibit of photographs from the Edge of Appalachia preserves showing the seasons of nature there. Following that was the Ice Age Gallery – a walk through diorama of prehistoric animals and plants.
We ended in the Neil Armstrong Space Gallery, which I think just opened a few years ago. We have been to so many out of date space exhibits, it was so lovely to be in one that was up-to-date! They were showing a video that talked about the Artemis program, the current initiative to return to the moon. You can see a video that previews the exhibit here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jq91PI2PjWA
This was a very enjoyable science museum visit. Nice variety of topics, in good repair, and interesting for both adults and our 12 year old.
Cincinnati History Museum
We were almost out of time – the museum was closing in 15 minutes! So, we only got a brief visit here – but there was so much to see, and the exhibits were all so well done and engaging. I think it would be well worth a much longer visit.
The Cincinnati in Motion exhibit is a scale model of the city, circa 1940. Really fun to look through. (I think it would be fun if you visited the city and spent a day getting to know the real modern city, then come see this history exhibit, and then go back to the city to see how it’s changed.) They had buttons you could press to hear the sounds of the city or to smell the smells (the yeast of the brewery, the bacon of the meat processing businesses), and tactile displays where you could feel a little sculpture of what the sculptures on the outside of the building are like.
The Shaping Our City exhibit would have bene totally in my husband’s wheelhouse if only we’d had more time there. It’s on how transportation shaped the city, from canoes used by the Indigenous People to navigate the rivers, trains and steam boats, streetcars, automobiles, and the transportation of the future.
Made in the City talked about the products produced there.
Then there was the Public Landing – a replica of the Cincinnati waterfront of 1850. A 90 foot long replica of the Steamboat Queen of the West, and 6 shops you can walk through. This was really impressive! You can see a video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fSm9dxzwpv0.
Here are a couple videos that walk you through the history museum: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z7Wa8xWdqro and through the whole Museum Center: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T6hwswE1G30.
Time / Cost
The entrance fee was $22 for adults and $15 for children or you could become a member for as little as $65. We got in free because we are members of our own local children’s museum, and the Cincinnati Museum Center participates in the travel passport program of the Association of Science-Technology Centers and the reciprocal program through the Association of Children’s Museums. We paid separately for the Omnimax and the LEGO exhibit.
We were there for almost 5 hours, which included the three museums, 1 hour in the Bricktionary exhibit, and an Omnimax movie, and didn’t quite see it all. So, if you have the patience for more, there’s certainly more to see! (When our son was younger, he couldn’t have lasted more than about 3 hours in museums, no matter how engaging.)
There is an ice cream parlor, coffee carts, and two cafe’s in the building if you get hungry.
We had a great day at the Cincinnati Museum Center.
Read about these other area museums: Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum, Air Zoo in Portage, MI, COSI in Columbus, and the Michigan Science Center in Detroit. Or other science museums across the country. (See a map of some here: https://www.google.com/maps/d/edit?mid=1bTp83RbUJdvwdXx41m_d3vC71u2nxBs&usp=sharing.)
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