The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, June 6, 2003


The Discovery Museums: a new kind of town square

Tucked among tree-shaded homes along Acton's Main Street (Route 27) is a green dinosaur, usually wearing a hat, who looks out at passing traffic from behind a picket fence. For twenty years, that dinosaur has been a landmark at 177 Main Street to welcome kids of all ages to a vibrant, happy meeting place: the Discovery Museums.

If the word "museum" conjures up memories of painful afternoons dragging children, or being dragged by one's own parents, through halls of static exhibits and tableaux of taxidermy, a visit to the Discovery Museums will change that idea forever. The Association of Children's Museums describes the best children's museum as "a new kind of town square where play inspires lifelong learning." This concept is realized daily in every corner of the two quirky buildings and three acres of grounds of this "new kind of town square."

The Children's Discovery Museum

Founded in 1981 as the Children's Discovery Museum in a Victorian house originally built as a wedding present to a newly married couple, the first building on the property retains its original name and focuses on children newborn through age six. In the house are eleven different activity spaces on three floors. For babies, each room has interesting sounds to hear, associated with colorful objects to watch and touch. The Infant Corner, designed especially for them, features a quiet area with a floor-level mirror, safe toys, and pictures. There is even a comfortable area especially for nursing mothers.

Morgan Pierce sets himself up as railroad ticket dispenser at the Discovery Museum
For children able to get about on their own, the spaces offer limitless possibilities to expand the imagination and observe the world. Near the entrance is the train room, where children may sell tickets, climb on a locomotive train full of bells and whistles, and build a working railroad. In the chain reactions room, children may send balls through paths made of PVC pipe, blocks, funnels, and other everyday objects. Another room features the now-famous "bubble" where children can step into and surround themselves, blow out, or pop an "enormous" life- sized bubble. There is also a water table with a water wheel, boats, cups, and wonderful splashing possibilities. Aprons are provided.

Three floors of discovery and fun

The front hall is painted to look like the ocean floor, and artists may add to the creatures living there by drawing on a giant chalkboard. I was fortunate enough to visit both museums in the morning, during two school field trips. On the day I visited, I discovered a large, pie-faced, stick-figured individual named "Seth" swimming on the chalkboard right along with octopi and eels. On the ascent to the second floor, the light gets brighter and the "water" recedes, and before long, it is possible to climb in and out of a hollow tree or burrow below the ground in the Woodland Room. Here are soft stuffed woodland animals, and costumes allowing young visitors to imagine themselves as animal counterparts in their natural habitats. Children can try walking on a suspended "jungle bridge" in the Safari Room, experiment with every color of the spectrum in the Rainbow Room, or clamber over an adventure fort built in a tiny, 75-square-foot area. The fort has a dozen different hands-on activities compacted into its boundaries with not an inch of wasted space.

Upstairs on the third floor is the Discovery Ship, an exhibit over two rooms where children may test their abilities as sailors, navigators, and artists. Sounds of surf and sea birds fill the air as the anchor is weighed and secured, and the ship's wheel is turned to the directions of the "navigator" below deck in the instrument area. The longboat carries life-jacketed "passengers." Sometimes artists, busy making sand and light pictures, become shellfish lurking on the sea floor.

My favorite room is Bessie's Play Diner on the second floor, which recreates a 1950s diner and includes a short-order kitchen, plastic food, plates and cutlery, booths equipped with individual juke boxes, and even a pay phone booth. I saw children take on the roles of managers, chefs, wait staff, and patrons. If the plastic hamburgers were all in use, one might be served a "hamburger" that looked a lot like a head of lettuce, and the bill might be $9000, but teamwork and cooperation interplayed freely with imagination. Education Director Lauren Kotkin accepted a menu from a "waiter" while telling me the story of a tiny, pre-verbal child who entered the phone booth, rested the telephone headset on her shoulder, found her "number" in the chain-suspended Acton phone book, and proceeded to dial. While I was there, I heard another child calling Mars. In one corner of the diner was a display of photographs of diners across the U.S., as well as menu samples from restaurants in the greater Acton area: a resource for adults whose tastes run to something other than plastic food.

What's in it for adults?

For adults, of course, the best exhibit is the children themselves, as in each setting, their learning is creative, inventive, and totally self-motivated. Museum staffers are trained to ask, "What do you think?" and "How would you do this?" and "Tell me about this," leaving room for the children to verbalize and demonstrate their creative play. In both museums, floor staff abounds, to help, answer questions (usually with more questions) and guide. Another excellent feature for adults is that in a corner of every exhibit is a book rack filled with resources for parents and teachers who, watching a child become fascinated with some area of play or experimentation, are invariably inspired to help him learn more, or to learn more themselves. There are books in every room for children too. In both museums, there is an effort to construct exhibits out of everyday items, so that they can be reproduced at home or in the classroom.

Outdoor Exhibits

In 1987, a second building was added to the Children's Discovery Museum and called the Science Discovery Museum. Its architecture is complementary, and reminiscent of an oversized carriage house. The pathway between the two museum buildings runs through a lovely "animal garden" of lamb's ear, butterfly bushes, foxglove, catmints and other plants with animal names. There are also two large "Whisper Dishes", where visitors can whisper to one another through parabolic dishes placed 100 feet apart. In addition to other sound exhibits, a huge interactive sculpture called the "Slapaphone" encourages visitors to create their own music on its many kinetic and sound-producing parts.

The Science Discovery Museum

The newer building houses a museum which focuses on children ages seven to ninety-seven, and concentrates on using discovery and exploration skills to foster science literacy. My tour through this building and its wonders was all too short. This museum has hosted successful sweet-sixteen parties, wedding receptions, and councils on aging, where senior citizens have revitalized themselves and the museum with their revelations of their own learning processes. For adults, every exhibit evokes a memory, an epiphany, or a discovery. As Education Director Denise LeBlanc puts it, "What's your hobby? Everyone can create, and be a self-motivated learner." Associate Education Director and Carlislean Maria Conley, whose son, cartoonist Darby Conley, painted many of the murals in the science museum, greeted another young school group while I was touring. Maria noted that young visitors come back as high school "explorers," docent-like staff interns, so there is a through-line of people ages, newborn to old, using and supporting the museums.

This end of the museum complex is designed with many open, yet intimate spaces. Windows and portholes are built into walls, ceilings, and floors, framing the exhibits and those exploring them. As in the Children's Discovery Museum, books are everywhere, resource racks are in each corner, and floor staff is at the ready. The progression from early childhood learning to
Morgan Pierce learns about degausing televisions at the Science Museum
the more sophisticated development of older children is evident here as children are encouraged to "design" many of the exhibits. The chain reaction experienced by preschoolers in the children's building as following balls through a path of objects becomes, in the science building, a series of PVC sections, funnels, blocks, and other objects on magnets, stuck to a metal wall, so that the children design the paths through which the balls will pass.
Besides the chain reaction exhibit, this museum picks up on the bubble and water table exhibits in the children's building by allowing visitors to control an eight-foot water vortex, walk through a mist tornado, experiment with clouds, and experience hands-on exhibits like a giant bubble wall, bubble tubes, a stream table, wave tubes, and other demonstrations that show the nature and physics of water. LeBlanc says, "We are a physics museum," and it is certainly a place where physics is exciting.

The Science Discovery Museum and Girls Get Set for Life

The Rainbow Room of the children's building becomes here a series of exhibits on light and color, and a study of how the human eye works. Many of the most impressive exhibits in use have been designed by a group of high school students in the Girls Get Set for Life program, which partners engineering academics from Tufts University with female high school students to create accessible, hands-on exhibits. They also create a PowerPoint program showing the development of their exhibit for presentation to a museum. One such light exhibit encourages visitors to test and observe the flow of light and color in fiber optic cable. Another, the "Lighthouse of Lenses," shows how light is refracted by lenses and demonstrates the functions of the human eye, using a simple plywood "lighthouse," hair combs, and pieces of Plexiglas.

Other light and color exhibits allow visitors to explore kaleidoscopes, color filters, colored shadows, strobe lights, "freeze" shadows on a phosphorescent wall, and more. A funhouse mirror and some patterned towels form a deceptively simple exhibit for studying reflections and optical illusions. Computer stations around the museum encourage further exploration.

An Inventor's Workshop combines crafts and science by encouraging visitors to create their own projects and exhibits using hand tools and recycled materials. A harmonograph table demonstrates the patterns of movement and the effects of weight and angle to create unique line designs. Visitors study patterns and create art and decor by covering a black wall of nails with colored elastics, or by examining textile art from indigenous populations around the world and making patterns with a wall of shapes.

Math and physics principles can be tested in such exhibits as a probability board, a giant pin screen table, a chiming catapult game, and an electricity room where visitors can make working circuits. One can research sound and communication through an echo tube, a synthesized air harp, tuning forks, a "Rubber Ball Music Wall," a sound wave vibration viewer, and more. Earth science and natural law exhibits include various magnets, fossils, rocks and sand from around the world, minerals, a freshwater pond tank, and an observation deck and sky hatch called Nature's Balcony on the third floor.

Summer hours and programs

There are ten separate areas in the Science Discovery Museum and too many exhibits to name or describe here. It would be far better to visit both Museums. Experience the twentieth- anniversary celebrations to be held on the twentieth day of each month, beginning officially on June 20 with an interactive concert of songs by Gene Stamell, or join one of the age-appropriate four, five, or eight-day programs to be offered this summer. Summer hours at the museums are 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. seven days a week, with special Monday Funday programs and special day programs throughout the summer. Check out the Discovery Museums website at www. or call them at 1-978-264-4200. Meet friends and be inspired at this new kind of town square.

Gene Stamell to perform at the Discovery Museums

Summer officially begins on June 20 at the Discovery Museums in Acton with an outdoor concert of interactive, traditional and contemporary songs by Gene Stamell, and half-price museum admission from 5:30 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. The concert, which is free with museum admission, is being sponsored by Wayside Mortgage.

"Gene puts on a fabulous show and we are excited to have him kickoff our summer season," said Lauren Kotkin, Director of Education at the Children's Discovery Museum. "Our goal was to start the summer with a program the entire family could enjoy together. The idea is to bring a blanket and picnic dinner and enjoy some time together while listening to music. Gene, a third-grade teacher in the Carlisle Public School, has a fun, upbeat repertoire of songs, and both kids and parents have a ball when he is here. We are thrilled that Wayside Mortgage has helped make this event possible."

2003 The Carlisle Mosquito