Family-friendly museums across the U.S.

The Denver Museum of Nature and Science is The Denver Museum of Nature and Science is opening a new exhibit, "Mammoths and Mastodons: Titans of the Ice Age," featuring fossil tusks, skulls, interactive videos and more to bring viewers closer to the Snowmastadon Project, a huge Ice Age fossil site unearthed near Snowmass Village in Aspen, Colo. Photo Credit: Handout

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It's not easy to find a place that equally inspires kids and grown-ups, whatever their ages.

But we hit the jackpot at The Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix -- a 200,000-square-foot building housing nearly 15,000 instruments and artifacts from around the world with nearly 5,000 on display at one time.

See the piano where John Lennon composed the song "Imagine," one of Paul Simon's guitars, Elvis' costumes and the first Steinway piano, which was built in a German kitchen in 1836.

Then take the kids to the huge experience room where they can create their own music on guitars and ukuleles, play xylophones and harps or bang on giant Chinese gongs and drums.

Ice-age fossils

Wherever you go on vacation this spring, take time to visit a museum exhibit that would especially interest your family. If you are visiting New Orleans, stop in at the National WWII Museum where a special exhibit, "Gridiron Glory" (through May 5), shows kids how much the sport of football has changed from its beginnings in the late 19th century to the Super Bowl today.

At the The Denver Museum of Nature & Science's new exhibit, "Mammoths and Mastodons: Titans of the Ice Age" (through May 27), you can relive the story of the Snowmastadon Project, the huge Ice Age fossil site unearthed near Colorado's Snowmass Village in 2010. See fossils from the site on display for the first time and watch museum volunteers prepare fossils found at various digs. Maybe you have a future paleontologist in your gang.

Bonnie and Clyde's car

Take time for smaller museums, too. When I was visiting Washington, D.C., with a group of teenagers who attend our high school, someone suggested we make time for the National Museum of Crime and Punishment. It's easy to see why this museum is a winner for teenage boys with its exhibit on high-speed police chases, Bonnie and Clyde's bullet-riddled car and the chance to hack into a computer or crack a safe. In San Francisco, we loved the small Boudin Museum and Bakery Tour (just $3), where you see the huge sourdough bread bakery in action but also learn about San Francisco history in the process. (Did you know that the same sourdough starter has been used at Boudin since 1849? Or that Louis Boudin rescued the starter from the burning bakery following the 1906 earthquake?)

Wherever you are, let the kids help choose which museum -- and which exhibits -- to visit. Take a virtual tour before you go. In many cases, like at the new Natural History Museum of Utah -- spectacularly located adjacent to the Red Butte Garden where locals and visitors come to hike -- you can download The Trailhead to Utah app that lets your smartphone help guide your family through the exhibits to learn more about Utah's ecosystems, fossils and native cultures.

Explore the culture

At the Musical Instrument Museum, guidePORT technology enables you to watch a video and hear the music as soon as you walk up to the exhibit, headphones in your ears, without any buttons to push or text to read. (Hidden identifiers at the exhibits cue the guides when a visitor is standing in front of the video monitor.)

Musical instruments have been acquired from more than 200 countries and date back to between 4000 and 5000 BC. Maybe you've visited Costa Rica or Switzerland, or maybe your kids have a friend from Mexico. Here's a chance to explore a little of that culture through the universal language of music -- watching musicians and hearing their music while standing in front of these instruments.

Where to start? As in any museum, you start with what interests you most. I'll be the grown-up waiting on line with the kids to play the xylophone.

If you go

Musical Instrument Museum, Phoenix, 480-478-6000, mim.org

National WWII Museum, New Orleans, 504-528-1944, ddaymuseum.org

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The Denver Museum of Nature & Science, Denver, 303-370-6000, dmns.org

National Museum of Crime and Punishment , Washington, D.C. 202-621-5550, crimemuseum.org

Boudin Museum and Bakery Tour, San Francisco, boudinbakery.com/museum/bakery_tour

Natural History Museum of Utah

@Newsday

, Salt Lake City, 801-581-4303, nhmu.utah.edu

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