Until the yellow school buses started pulling up at the National Museum of Dentistry's door, visitors to the $5 million gallery were as scarce as crooked teeth in a beauty pageant.
The exhibit hall on the edge of the University of Maryland's downtown campus, which opened in June, still has a tough time attracting large numbers of casual, walk-in patrons such as those who visit the Babe Ruth and B&O Railroad museums, two neighboring institutions on the western side of downtown Baltimore.
The dental museum has adopted a different strategy. It is building a constituency of school groups, especially younger children who seem captivated by a hand puppet named Franny the Flossisaurus or who eat up talks about the tooth fairy. They are genuinely amazed by a plastic glass wall of ancient and exotic toothbrushes. Most of them scarcely glance at the metal tooth-pulling instruments of pre-Revolutionary Paris.
"We break the mold for museums. Children have never been to a place like this before," said Jacqueline V. Eyl, the museum's director of education.
"By the time they are three-quarters of the way through the exhibit, they forget they heard about George Washington's teeth," a reference to the museum's most famous exhibit.
Eyl's strategy to capture her young visitors' interest is to get them talking. Topic number one is the turning points of early childhood, the loss of baby teeth.
"When you think about it, it's the first life transition for kids. We tend to gloss over it, but it is an important experience for them," Eyl said.
"I was hesitant at first," said Julie Smith, who led 23 children (all in the "cavity-prone years") to the museum last fall.
"At first, the children were skeptical, too. But they soon started looking at the historic dentist's chairs, the different toothbrushes, the cartoons. Once they got back, they couldn't stop talking about it," said Smith, director of White Marsh Child Care Center.
About George Washington's teeth, Eyl tries to teach a lesson. "Even with people like George Washington, we try to say that it was not uncommon for people back then to lose all their teeth," she says.
"I want this to be a living, breathing part of these children's lives. I want to give them lessons, not just ideas," said Eyl.
"We are very catholic in our taste here," said Dr. Ben Z. Swanson, the museum's executive director, one of the few people on this side of the Atlantic to hold a master's degree in dental history from the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine in London. At heart, Swanson is a passionate collector of anything dental. "If the object seems far afield, I love it more," he said. "I'm always trying to reach."
He once owned the world's largest collection of toothpaste pot lids, the ceramic tops (about the size of a large cookie) that fit atop canisters of abrasive tooth powders sold 100 or more years ago.
"We know we are not entirely conventional. We are a museum that has parodies and caricatures of dentists on the walls. Dentists could object to the way we show the profession if they took isolated objects out of context," Swanson said.
While some 500 pieces are on display (the toothbrush display is a knockout and has become a school-group favorite), a visit to the museum gives the impression that the institution has many more in storage. In fact, some 39,500 other items are not shown.
Children can turn on an interactive video screen to watch a 1930s Our Gang comedy ("The Awful Tooth"), the episode in which Alfafa goes to a dentist as his buddies look on in horror.
Another video screen contains a medley of classic 1950s television commercials related to products in a tooth jukebox. "Brusha-brusha-brusha. Here's the new Ipana." And another commercial echo of that era: "You'll wonder where the yellow went when you brush your teeth with Pepsodent."
"The biggest hurdle is getting people interested. Dentistry is associated with something they'd rather not think about. But there's a lot of entertainment value here," said Richard Molinaroli, zTC the Washington exhibit designer whose firm created the look of the place. "There will never be anything as comprehensive done again on this subject."
The museum, at Greene and Lombard streets, is open Wednesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sunday from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is $4.50 for adults, $2.50 for youths, senior citizens and students. Children under 6 are free. Information: (410) 706-0600.
Pub Date: 1/26/97