Exhibits: The Computer Museum, the Museum of Science and the Children's Museum offer innovative programs that will appeal to the entire family.


August 04, 1996|By Naedine Joy Hazell | Naedine Joy Hazell,HARTFORD COURANT

From hands-on to online, Boston has a museum for every kind of kid and the kid in everyone.

Choose from dozens of programs and exhibits, ranging from the Computer Museum's giant personal computer (it has a 20-foot-wide keyboard, and that's just for starters) to virtual volleyball at the Museum of Science and interactive theater at the Children's Museum.

A long weekend or a few days midweek would be best for families intending to visit all three, but one or two museums can be visited in a day.

The stroller-to-grade-school crowd would most enjoy the Children's Museum, which gears its four floors of exhibits to children 10 and under.

On a recent day, a group of gap-toothed, hard-hatted grade-school boys climbed on construction equipment and each other in the "Build It" exhibit.

"Build It," the museum's newest exhibit, reflects the construction around the city and gives children access to the grown-up world in a way they can understand.

"It's very hands-on," museum intern Kate Mulcahy said. "They really learn more by doing it themselves."

Doing it yourself at the museum includes moving the claws and pincers on a 15-foot-long lobster in the "Under the Dock" exhibit; appearing in your own video in the television exhibit; playing dress-up with clothes, shoes and hats from a trunk full of goodies; making beach-ball-size soap bubbles; and cramming lots of people into a real-life Japanese subway car to simulate rush hour in Kyoto.

The subway car is part of the fourth floor's standing exhibit on Japanese culture, food, family and traditions.

Down the hall from the Japan exhibit is a theater marquee proudly marking the entrance to KidStage, a new space designed to introduce children to the performing arts. It offers kids a behind-the-scenes, hands-on view of theater and regular interactive programs.

The museum, which opened 83 years ago, was the first devoted entirely to children. It moved to its current home, a converted brick and timber warehouse, in 1979. About 650,000 children and adults visit annually.

The Children's Museum shares its warehouse building with another nationally known facility -- the Computer Museum.

It's a walk out the front door of the Children's Museum and then a right turn. You continue along the wharf about a half-block, until a computerized voice surprises you by inviting you to step up and have your height checked.

If you're game, you can place your feet over footprints painted on the wharf. In a few seconds, the voice tells your height, within a quarter-inch. The magic of sonar.

And that's just where the adventure begins. From the lobby, it's a swift ride up six floors in a living-room-size glass elevator that offers a panoramic view of the Fort Point Channel and Boston Harbor.

When the doors open, "Star Wars' " R2D2 is there to greet you. It sets the museum's tone, which is somewhere between fun and fascination.

"We're really a third-wave museum," said museum spokeswoman Gail Jennes. "The first wave of museums had artifacts. The second introduced hands-on exhibits. We have both."

And then some.

The most remarkable exhibit in the two-floor museum might be the giant computer, which is 50 times larger than average.

The king-size keyboard -- so large that visitors can hop with both feet on every key -- is on one floor, and the 12-foot-tall color monitor hangs above the stairs going to the next floor.

And then there's the mouse, which is the size of a compact car and roomy enough for two to three kids to sit on so they can move the ball to click on the monitor above them.

"One of the questions we got a lot is, 'How do computers work?' So, we blew it up 50 times so you can actually walk through the inside of the computer," Jennes said.

The museum is home to even more impressive historical hunks of hardware, including a piece of the original Whirlwind computer. It is one of the first stops on the tour through the "Milestones of a Revolution" exhibit.

The exhibit is lively thanks to interactive computer programs and some well-chosen film footage, ranging from scratchy black-and-white 1950s images, to Batman and Robin using the Batcomputer, to the memorable TV commercials that introduced the personal computers developed by Apple and IBM.

When it opened in Marlborough, Mass., in 1979, the Computer Museum was the first of its kind in the world. It moved to its current home in 1984 and has about 144,000 visitors annually.

You don't have to know your way around a slide rule to find your way around these exhibits, all of which include interactive components.

Want to know what has been charged to your credit card? You can find out in the Networked Planet exhibit.

Want a primer on how to get on the Internet and find your way around? A pro teaches two sessions a day.

How about talking to a computer that will talk back? You can do that, too.

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