Ancient history, hands-on for kids

Opening: A traveling exhibit targeting children ages 7 to 12 gives youngsters an interactive look at life 3,900 years ago in the Near East.

March 10, 2003|By Molly Knight | Molly Knight,SUN STAFF

Life was tough 3,900 years ago. Back in biblical times there were no homebuilders. No television sets. No grocery stores.

This was the message for about 300 children who gathered yesterday at the Jewish Museum of Maryland on Lloyd Street for the opening of From Tent to Temple: Life in the Ancient Near East, an interactive exhibit for youngsters.

"People had to hunt for their own food, make their own shelters and protect themselves," said Dena Lehmann, a wide-eyed 11-year-old from Baltimore. "It was really hard for them to eat."

"They didn't even have air conditioning or heating," added Dena's sister, Yael, 9.

Created by the Jewish Children's Learning Lab, the traveling exhibit is the first of its kind to come to the 15-year-old museum. Housed in a large room of the museum, the exhibit is made up of 55 workstations divided into four sections: food, shelter, clothing and archaeology. All of these stations can be touched, pushed, pulled or played with.

Although the exhibit is targeted at ages 7 to 12, yesterday's opening drew children ranging from toddlers to early teens.

Some made slippers of cardboard cutouts and pieces of felt. Others built small houses out of smooth, square blocks of limestone or fetched water from a small well. And many of them fed grain to bleating goats and lambs, who craned their necks to reach the multitude of small hands filled with food.

The exhibit included a mock souk, or market place, and outdoor petting zoo with a bevy of barn animals including a rather languid-looking donkey, a pair of cackling quails and a brilliant blue peacock. The result was a successful, but lighthearted, re-creation of a scene out of the Ancient Near East.

"I'm trying to make this place as playful as possible," said Avi Decter, director of the museum. "The fact is, you learn so much more when you're having a good time. I mean, I consider myself a pretty good museum-goer, but even I get tired after about 45 minutes. That's when my feet start to hurt."

Abby Lattes of Baltimore, who brought her 2 1/2 -year-old son, Winn, to the exhibit, agreed that the exhibit is an ideal mix of education and recreation.

"In most museums kids can't touch anything, and that's just contrary to their nature," she said. "Most kids learn by doing things, like they are here."

Lattes said that although her son is too young to understand the contents of the exhibit, he learned about deserts and tents for the first time. Otherwise, he and his friend Enzo Metsopoulos, also 2 1/2 , had more fun petting the animals than they did touring the exhibit.

For the older children, the exhibit seemed to have a greater impact. Erica Ludman, 8, of Baltimore used a stone to grind a pile of imitation grain while her mother, Fran Ludman, explained one of the ancient methods of cooking: "It used to take all day for people to make bread this way."

From Tent to Temple arrived in Baltimore after traveling around the country for three years. In the fall of 2000, the exhibit became an issue in Wyoming when officials from the Laramie County School District said teachers could not sponsor trips to the exhibit because of its religious overtones. Threatened with a lawsuit, the officials retracted their decision.

Decter said he isn't concerned that From Tent to Temple will cause any such controversy in Baltimore.

"This exhibit definitely caters to the growing number of Jewish families here," he said. "But it's really for all families to come and learn about life in ancient Israel."

"From Tent to Temple" will be at the Jewish Museum of Maryland, 15 Lloyd St., until July.

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