The most visited children's museum in the country is in Houston. When I took my daughter there, we found out why.
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IF THERE’S ONE THING KIDS DISLIKE MORE THAN BEDTIME, it’s being dragged to some stuffy history museum or art gallery. I know, because since my eight-year-old daughter, Rayna, was a toddler, I’ve tried to force-feed her large helpings of any type of culture higher than Chuck E. Cheese. We have spent countless hours at children’s museums and grown-up museums with children’s sections, but most of the time both of us have come away unsatisfied. While more and more museums are trying to make children and their parents comfortable—a welcome change from the world I knew as a kid, when cultural institutions were primarily stodgy showcases for “hands-off” exhibitions—the majority appeal to very small children. Some amount to little more than an upscale playscape.
A good children’s museum has to offer the perfect balance of fun and education, so that it can hold the interest of both children and their parents. The Children’s Museum of Houston (CMH) does this better than any cultural attraction for kids in Texas. It provides a kaleidoscope of exhibits that focus on art, science, history, and culture in a setting that has all the trappings of a traditional museum but none of the stodginess.
Originally opened in 1985, the museum moved into its elegant new two-story home, designed by noted Philadelphia architect Robert Venturi, in 1992. Located on the eastern periphery of the museum district, the CMH attracts half a million visitors a year, higher attendance per square foot than at any other children's museum in the U.S. On the day Rayna and I visited, we were joined by her nine-year-old friend Jess and his mother, Annie. The main entrance to the bright yellow building, which occupies almost an entire city block, is flanked by four fat columns with large red letters that spell "museum" playfully perched across the top.
It didn't take long for the kids to become entranced. The moment that we entered the building, we were drawn to two ten-foot-tall, see-through displays called the MagiGadget and the GearGadget sitting just beyond the front door. Imagine taking a junk drawer full of odds and ends such as small plastic toys and miscellaneous mechanical parts and creating a large sculpture with moving components: With the turn of a crank or the push of a button, large plastic insects vibrated, a miniature Elvis wiggled around, and mice traveled on a conveyor belt. We hadn't even gone to the counter and paid our admission when Rayna said, "Wow, this place is great." This was one of the few times my jaded second-grader had shown enthusiasm for anything that was good for her.
The main artery of the museum is the John P. McGovern Kids' Hall, with its rainbow-colored archways decorated with zigzag patterns and activity centers for face painting and arts and crafts. On the left are the gift shop, the library, and a party room, while all of the galleries are situated on the right, as is an auditorium where the Alley Theatre and the Houston Symphony occasionally perform. We decided to spend our time exploring the museum's fourteen galleries; they are all connected, so it really doesn't matter where you start.
We entered the Technikids gallery first, where we immediately encountered the Phone Zone. A ceiling-high robot fashioned out of old telephones (rotary-style and early cellular), overlooked a room full of interactive stations that represented types of telecommunications, including video phones and computers for sending instant e-mail messages. The robot's eyes were two constantly spinning dials, and his fingers were handsets. At the base of each leg were stations with four pay phones. Rayna picked one up and started talking. "Who are you talking to?" I asked. "That guy," she said in that tone kids use when they think that the answer is obvious, as she pointed to the robot. When I picked up one of the phones, I was surprised to hear, "Hello. Hola. Press one for English." Then I was given a new set of choices—phone history, wacky phone facts, how phones work, phone safety, or my choice, phone manners. "Have you ever called someone and they answer the phone, 'Yeah?' or they sound like they're chewing gum or eating?" the robot asked. "Just pick up and say 'Hello.'" While I was reflecting that some people I knew needed to visit this exhibit, I realized that Rayna had escaped my field of vision. I spotted Jess helping her onto the nearby Kid Lift, where she could sit on a tractor-type seat and hoist herself five feet above the ground using pulleys.
Next we wandered upstairs to the Light Warehouse, where we could explore the relationship between light, color, shadow, and reflection. All of the upper-level exhibit spaces are designed like lofts, from which you can look down over a railing to the first floor. The big hit for all of us in the Warehouse was the installation called Recollections III, created by artist Ed Tannenbaum. In a darkened room about the size of a one-car garage, a projection screen covered an entire wall. When you enter, a video camera records your movement on the screen while a computer randomly changes the color of the image, which is then left on the screen while a new image is being made. The constantly morphing colors create a sixties psychedelic effect, and the four of us spent a good fifteen minutes dancing together, mesmerized by our own images.
The kids were ready to take a break and get some refreshments, but since the Kids' Café was closed on our visit (at press time it was scheduled to reopen with more space and an expanded menu), we went on with our exploration of the galleries. Rayna and Jess would have none of the visiting Sesame Street exhibit—they were too old, too cool. We moved on to the Bubble Lab, a place to make bubbles of all shapes and sizes; the Cyber Clubhouse (lots of computer stations); and Yalálag, a replica of a Mexican mountain village. In the escuela, we sat at little desks while a docent taught us how to count to ten in Spanish and Zapotec (to, chop, chon . . .). In the Chick Hatchery, a minibarn with bales of hay strewn about, newly hatched baby chicks were exhibited under a protective shield of heavy plastic. In an adjacent display we could see eggs at various stages of the hatching process. "Keep an eye on those eggs," my daughter advised. "You have to write about this."
Near the hatchery I discovered my favorite exhibit, the Worm Center—a rectangular box filled with dirt and earthworms. As a child, I had loved digging up worms and collecting them in buckets, and on more than one occasion, Annie's husband has found her digging up and relocating whole sections of earth while gardening—"To keep the worm families together," she explained. While Jess and Rayna were milking a robotic cow, Annie and I were lifting up doors to look through the Plexiglass windows that allowed us to see into the dark worm world. You have to be careful when you close the doors because they tend to slam quite loudly, and as Annie pointed out, "What if the worms are sleeping?" As Rayna called out, "Mom, want to milk a cow?" I was announcing to Annie, with equal excitement, "I found a worm!"
We ended up in the courtyard at the museum's new EcoStation, a 4,600-square-foot outdoor environmental area that opened in March of this year. Here were more projects, including the chance to learn why fish don't sink, demonstrated with Styrofoam peanuts, a washer, a string, and a glass of water. Don't ask me to explain it. I could have inquired further by writing a question for the "Stump the Scientist" box, but I let Rayna contribute one instead: "How did the Earth get here?" More than three weeks have passed, and we have yet to get a reply. I guess they're stumped.