The Real Deal: Museum promises hands-on fun with "stuff"

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In this world of virtual-this and cyber-that, the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh has adopted a back-to-basics philosophy for the exhibits installed as part of its $22.5 million expansion.

Brian Cicco checks design drawings in front of the Children's Museum's Animateering exhibit, where visitors will be able to manipulate the encased puppets using controls at the console in the foreground.
Click photo for larger image.

"Playing With Real Stuff" is the theme throughout the newly renovated space, which will be unveiled in a grand-opening weekend Saturday and next Sunday. The museum's additional 16,000-square-foot, three-story structure links the original site (the historic Allegheny Post Office) with its neighboring building, the old Buhl Planetarium.

The new building itself is part of an art piece designed by environmental artist Ned Kahn, a 2003 MacArthur Fellow. Its facade is screened by 43,000 polycarbonate flaps that make up a wind sculpture. The flaps move when the wind swirls around the building.

Executive director Jane Werner's enthusiasm is evident as she talks about the new exhibits and relates the story of how the museum staff came up with the design theme five years ago.

"It was one of those meetings that you'll never forget," Werner explained. "Everybody started talking about what was important in their childhood."

The answers ranged from putting on shows to building things in a grandfather's basement to exploring a nearby creek. None of it involved a television.

"All of us remembered playing with real stuff," Werner said.

It's the kind of experience that youngsters need, she added, because society is getting further and further away from it.

The real experiences at the museum include:

The Art Studio: It offers clay-making, silk-screening, printmaking, painting stations and paper-making. It also will display a portion of the museum's collection, including Margo Lovelace's puppets and masks, a series of Andy Warhol silk-screen prints and prints by other artists, including Wolk Kahn.

Garage/Workshop: Children can build things with wood and other materials; the garage area has a Mini-Cooper that will allow children to explore how automobiles work; there's also a chance to take apart everyday items such as telephones and VCRs with assistance from museum staff.

Waterplay: This features a 53-foot waterway where children can design boats and test them by floating them down a "river" of locks and dams and whirlpools.

Theater: At this flexible space for museum performers, guest artists, storytellers and puppeteers, children will have the opportunity to dress up and take the stage.

Attic: This provides a variety of illusion rooms and unique objects in the "cabinets of curiosity."

Nursery: This is designed for the museum's youngest visitors and their caregivers, and its activities will help the youngsters with their gross and fine motor skills.

Backyard: This outdoor space will house a variety of children's activities, including the interactive earth exhibit also known as bubble mud, a musical swing set, a 25-foot Poodle Sphinx and sculptures, statues, etc., from the museum's courtyard.

Alyssa Cwanger, Post-Gazette
Scenic artist Eileen Garrigan of Vandergrift works on clouds for the "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" exhibit as it takes shape at the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh.
Click photo for larger image.Alyssa Cwanger, Post-Gazette
Wyatt Carpenters Tom Lutz, left, and Pat McCurdy install a window wall in the Nursery exhibit as workers scramble to complete the Children's Museum expansion project in time for the opening next weekend.
Click photo for larger image. Neighborhood:

A life-size re-creation of the original "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" television set that the museum developed as a traveling exhibit in 1998 will be permanently installed. Children will get a chance to drive the trolley and try on a sweater similar to Mister Rogers'. One of the few exhibits with a video screen, it features a video of the late Fred Rogers greeting youngsters.

Traveling Exhibits Gallery: The museum will bring in national traveling exhibitions, such as its opening entry, En Mi Familia, a look at the daily lives of a Mexican-American family as captured by artist and children's book author Carmen Lomas Garza. It was developed by the Austin Children's Museum.

"Here are real experiences and real processes and real stuff," Werner said. "Our studio is perfect. We're giving kids art materials that are real materials. We're not giving them Play-Doh; we're giving them clay because that's what artists use."

The museum's staff developed and built the prototypes for all of the exhibits, which have gone through a kind of kid-testing stage.

Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh Center for Learning in Out-of-School Environments (UPCLOSE) would watch families at an exhibit and make recommendations.

"They would listen in on conversations and watch people interact or not interact with it," Werner said. "I think we're feeling really confident that what we put on the floor will be a good experience."

UPCLOSE, headed by Dr. Kevin Crowley, an associate professor of education and psychology, will have a permanent museum learning laboratory on-site. The museum has also partnered with other groups that will have space there, including Reading is FUNdamental, Child Watch, the Saturday Light Brigade radio program, which will broadcast live on Saturdays, and the Pittsburgh Public Schools Program, a pre-kindergarten program.

National and local artists were commissioned to create interactive pieces that will be displayed throughout the building, among them:

Animateering by Carnegie Mellon University's Entertainment Technology Center: Children use a control panel to manipulate models of puppets from the museum's collection.

Wooden Mirror by Daniel Rozin: Artwork that translates a video image into an image made of wood.

Text Rain by Camille Utterback: Visitors use their body to lift and play with falling letters projected on a video screen. The falling letters form lines of a poem about bodies and language.

Museum officials began discussing the need for an expansion in 1998 after seeing how tremendously successful the newly installed Mister Rogers traveling exhibit was.

"I think it was then that we realized that we could attract an audience," Werner said. But there was a problem: The museum didn't have the space to accommodate that audience.

"We were turning away groups, especially during field-trip season," she said. "Every time we brought in a travel exhibit, we had to close one floor of the museum."

Before July 2004, the museum averaged 100,000 visitors annually. Officials now project that number to increase by 50,000 next year.

Maggie Forbes, executive director at the time, helped raise nearly $1 million for museum renovations in 1998, including installing a small cafe and revamping the exhibits and the parking.

Museum officials knew that an expansion was necessary. They conducted market and building analyses, developed a business plan, did a feasibility study and held a design competition.

Werner, who became executive director in 1999 and had the task of overseeing the expansion, visited a number of children's museums with her staff to see what was being done in other places. Among the ones they looked at were Port Discovery in Baltimore, the Chicago Children's Museum, the Minnesota Children's Museum in St. Paul and the Magic House Museum in St. Louis, which Werner said was the most inspirational because it incorporates historical artifacts into its exhibits.

Still, she said, the newly expanded Children's Museum of Pittsburgh is unlike any of the others.

"We're doing something so totally different," Werner said, "that people are curious to see how it's going to work. Trying different things makes it an exciting, ever-evolving museum."

For more information on the Children Museum of Pittsburgh's opening activities, call the museum at 412-322-5058 or visit Alyssa Cwanger, Post-Gazette
Hand dryers line the walls at the Waterplay exhibit on the third floor of the Children's Museum.
Click photo for larger image.

Monica Haynes can be reached at or 412-263-1660.


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