World Water Day & Sustainability

With an economy that relies on the health of Maine’s waters and land, and a population of people dedicated to the outdoors, the Museum & Theatre seeks to rally and excite our community to take part in preserving our natural resources. Children and families use the Museum & Theatre as a resource to learn more about our environment and how to protect it, and the Museum & Theatre plans to grow that impact through expanded programming and exhibits.

Casco Bay remains one of the fastest warming bodies of water in all the world. The Museum & Theatre’s live touch tank program, How Climate Change Effects Casco Bay, seeks to inform and empower children and their caregivers, fostering empathy in the youngest visitors and action and engagement with older visitors. During the program, visitors have access to real tools to measure salinity and temperature, as well as microbe health, and compare these results to current scientific data.  Visitors also have freedom to touch and explore the life within the tank, from microscopic phytoplankton to large anemone, sea stars, and rock crabs.

Crab (named Sandy-Shelley by visitors) being held by the hands of a Museum & Theatre educator.

For World Water Day, March 22nd, we will be exploring our Tide Pool Touch Tank at 10:30am to meet our marine creatures and explore a little piece of Casco Bay. 

Sustainability & the future home of the Museum & Theatre

The future Museum & Theatre on Thompson’s Point (coming in 2020!) will feature a brand new, custom aquatic exhibit designed to explore the interconnected Maine watershed through incredible experiences with live fish and animals. Three large touch tanks and several viewing tanks will be the feature of this interactive aquatic adventure. This exhibit will feature many of Maine’s native aquatic species from freshwater turtles to gulf of Maine skates, providing the opportunity for all ages to develop connections to Maine species and fostering stewardship of natural resources.

While plans to build the future Museum & Theatre at Thompson’s Point progress, the organization is continuing to ramp up our offerings at 142 Free Street and in surrounding schools, including a new education outreach program available to surrounding schools and organizations: Heating Up: Climate Change & Sustainability in Maine. Now students can explore the interconnected relationship between microscopic plants, humpback whales, and humans during a hands-on experience that allows participants to view live samples under a microscope and climb inside a life-sized whale.  

Our sustainable programming


Eric Venturini, a native pollinator conservation expert from The Xerces Society, educates visitors on the importance of Honey Bees in our community.

Current sustainability programs at the Museum & Theatre on Free Street focus on the roles different creatures play in maintaining a healthy ecosystem for Maine. On February 23rd, the founder of the Maine Wolf Coalition, John Glowa, joined Museum & Theatre visitors to talk about how wolves hold an important role in keeping our ecosystem healthy. In our popular February vacation week mainstage theatre production, The Three Little Pigs, audiences experienced an interactive version of the story which suggests that perhaps the pigs built their houses on wolf territory; this play (with youth actors from Maine!) explored habitat use in a fun, playful manner for families. Biologist and conservationist, Eric Venturini, from The Xerces Society talked to families visiting during February vacation week all about native bees and pollinators. And a honeybee exhibit allows visitors year-round to see a live honey bee hive in action as the bees come to and from the Museum & Theatre’s unique observation hive.

As the primary resource for Maine families, we believe it’s important to offer families learning through play opportunities for increasing their understanding of and connection to the natural world. Do you have suggestions for other sustainability educational programming or special guests that you would like to see at the Museum & Theatre? Please comment below with your ideas, and we hope to see you soon!

Young visitors play in Cascade Stream of our Discovery Woods (sponsored by L.L Bean)

The Buzz About Our New Bees

Please check out this cool gallery of images taken yesterday by our Director of Exhibits Chris Sullivan, as our brand new beehive was being installed. The bees were moved to their new temporary home in the Ranger Station on our second floor.

Some facts about the bees and our hive:

  • Davida Sky is our master beekeeper, with over 26 years of beekeeping experience. She will be checking in on the bees monthly to monitor them to make sure they are healthy and having a good time.
  • The queen is marked with a bright green dot on her back. Each year the new queens are marked with a different color, so in addition to being a tool for finding the queen, it is a way for beekeepers to track a queen’s age.
  • The new hive is an 8 frames hive from Bonterra Bees in Bar Harbor, Maine, almost 3 times bigger than our last one. This extra space gives the bees space to store enough honey to survive through the winter.

Bon Voyage, Istar!

Eva and Matilda and IstarJoin us this Sunday, February 23rd to celebrate and say farewell to our beloved humpback whale, Istar. It won’t be a forever farewell, don’t worry! She’s swimming on to meet new friends, but will be making appearances this summer (outside) and will also continue to swim around the state visiting students at their schools.

We love Istar so much! We love her whiskers and her tail and even her funny teeth. And from 2-5pm on the 23rd, we’ll be sharing our favorite things about her. Join us to sing a goodbye song in whale language, to feast on her favorite snacks, and to make yourself a beautiful whale spout hat. And of course, go inside Istar to learn about her eyes, her nose, her mouth, and her tail.

But you don’t have to take our word for it. Some of her friends shared their thoughts, and answered “What’s your favorite thing about Istar?”

“Her tail, because it was big and really long!”
Taylor, age 10
Lewiston, Maine

“Her whiskers! I didn’tTaylor and Istar
know whales had hair.”
Haiden, age 7
Westbrook, Maine

“My favorite part was everything. I got to see her eye!”
Ava, age 6
Freeport, Maine

“I thought it was really fun!”
Matilda, age 6
Topsham, Maine

Lights, Camera, Color: In the reimagined Camera Obscura exhibit, 10th Century Technology Meets 21st Century Kids

CO-tableThe technology behind the Camera Obscura – the reflection of light into a dark space, creating a projected image – is more than 1,000 years old. How do you make that feel new in 2013 for kids who are accustomed to high-tech screens that fit in their pockets? That was the challenge the we faced when creating Lights, Camera, Color: Exploring the Camera Obscura, a reinvented exhibit on the Museum’s third floor.

The year is 1020.

There are about 300 million people on earth. The city of Portland, Maine won’t be established for another seven centuries. Recent innovations include locks (allowing the creation of canals) and fire arrows. The Middle East is in a golden age of scientific achievement, with scientists making notable progress in the fields of medicine, astronomy and physics. The scientist Alhazen (also known as Ibn al-Haytham) has made an important discovery about how people see.

Depiction of a camera obscura used for recreation. Paul Sandby, Roslin Castle, Midlothian, ca. 1780, Gouache on medium laid paper, mounted on board, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon collection.
Depiction of a camera obscura used for recreation. Paul Sandby, Roslin Castle, Midlothian, ca. 1780, Gouache on medium laid paper, mounted on board, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon collection.

Until 1000 A.D., people believed that eyes sent out rays of light, and those rays formed a picture. They believed that the picture disappeared when eyes were closed because eyelids blocked the light from shooting out. After many experiments with light, Alhazen correctly theorized that eyes work the other way around, receiving light to create an image. His work offered the first clear description and early analysis of the device that came to be known as a camera obscura (latin for dark chamber): a box with a small hole
into which reflected light rays pass to create an image of what is outside. He used the camera obscura throughout his lifelong study of optics; his work corrected several antiquated theories and predated many Western optics discoveries by hundreds of years.

The camera obscura played a vital role in art and photography for centuries to come. During the Renaissance, the camera obscura helped artists understand the concept of perspective, taking painting from the flat compositions of the Middle Ages to the more lifelike, three-dimensional images we see after the 1400s. In the 16th and 17th centuries, using portable, tented camera obscuras for sketching became popular for both artists and hobbyists.

Starting in the 1700s, many scientists were working simultaneously to find a way to make the images projected by the camera obscura permanent. Their experiments with light project and silver salts, iodide and nitrate led to photography as we know it. Louis Daguerre’s “Daguerrotypes” are perhaps the most well-known form of early photography although amateur scientist William Talbot’s obscure “Talbotypes” were perhaps a more direct precursor to modern film photography.

Throughout history, the camera obscura has played an important role as artists and scientists sought to record and understand the world around us.

The year is 1994.

The original Focus Room. Photo by Claudia Dricot.
The original Focus Room. Photo by Claudia Dricot.

About 5.6 billion people live on earth, and about 1.25 million of them live in the state of Maine. Less than 20% of the US population has a cell phone; only 14% of Americans report that they use the internet. In Portland, the Sea Dogs are playing their very first season, and the Pirates are about to play their second. The Children’s Museum of Maine has been at its Free Street location for one year, with exhibits on the first floor (the second floor is mostly undeveloped) attracting more than 120,000 visitors. This year, the Museum is opening a brand new exhibit: the Camera Obscura.

Frederic L. Thompson – chair of the capital campaign that raised of $2.5 million for the Museum’s new location – secured a donation from Kodak to build a periscopic camera obscura on the Museum’s third floor, taking advantage of the cupola that tops the historic building. While a simple camera obscura can be created with a box and a pin, Thompson had a vision for a more complex device that would provide a more memorable visual experience. Though our camera obscura still uses natural light alone to create the image, a 12 inch lens inside the cupola helps project a more focused image, and a 20 inch mirror rotates mechanically, offering a 360-degree view.

A feature in the Boston Globe in 2008.
A feature in the Boston Globe in 2008.

Depending on light and weather conditions, visitors can observe everything from a flock of seagulls flying over Congress Square to the top of Mount Washington, nearly 100 miles away. A camera obscura of this scope and quality is rare – similar examples can be found in San Francisco, Edinburgh and a handful of other cities – and the exhibit drew the appreciation of Camera Obscura enthusiasts, art historians, photographers and travel writers (the exhibit has been featured in AAA Magazine and the Boston Globe).

The room just outside the camera obscura (called the Focus Room) offered a few hands-on optics exercises and a wealth of historic context for the camera obscura, from Alhazen to the light shows of the early 20th century. However, because of the delicate equipment that moves the rotating mirror, the exhibit’s central component was available only by guided tour, which generally took place twice daily. While popular with older children and parents, some families with younger children – due to short attention spans or challenges of navigating up to the third floor – visited the Museum for years without taking advantage of the hidden gem at the top of the stairs.

The year is 2013.

There are over 7 billion people on earth and 1.3 million call Maine home. 91% of US adults now have cell phones (as do 78% of kids over 12). More than half of those are smartphones, meaning most Americans have internet access in their pockets (85% use the internet in some form). In Portland, locals are enjoying the city’s trendy status thanks to the many accolades it’s received in recent years, from being named America’s Foodiest Small Town to having one of the 12 best children’s museums in the US. The Children’s Museum of Maine is now the Children’s Museum & Theatre of Maine, and it’s celebrating two decades at its Free Street location – as well as a new chapter in the story of one of its most distinctive exhibits.

An early sketch that included the shadow wall (top) and the completed shadow wall in use.
An early sketch that included the shadow wall (top) and the completed shadow wall in use.

Knowing that the Camera Obscura was one of the Museum & Theatre’s most versatile exhibits, staff has long been motivated to bring more people to the third floor to see it. By the fall of 2012, the exhibits and education staff had developed some ideas for renovations that could excite younger visitors and inspire the Museum & Theatre’s core audience to learn more about optics and light. The staff again approached Fred Thompson, this time via the Rines/Thompson Fund of the Maine Community Foundation, with a proposal. In early 2013, the Fund funded the Museum & Theatre’s proposal to renovate the exhibits, expanding upon the existing educational content, adding and updating interactive components and getting more visitors – especially young visitors – in the door. The goal: make a 1,000-year-old technology appealing to children growing up in the digital age.

The key to attracting young visitors: accessibility. Logistically, that meant modifying the actual Camera Obscura itself; previously open only during guided tours, the Camera Obscura is now open throughout the day; Museum visitors can get a
peek at Portland from a room with no windows any time they like. To preserve the exhibit and ensure that it will be here for years to come, the rotation controls are locked except during guided tours (still given daily). The projection is far from static, though – the cityscape is constantly alive with activity along Congress Street and beyond. Depending on light and where the lens is directed, visitors can observe everything from a flock of seagulls flying over Congress Square to the top of Mount Washington, nearly 100 miles away.

An early prototype of the tented camera obscura used in observations.
An early prototype of the tented camera obscura used in observations.

Accessibility is a psychological and developmental challenge as well, so the two-room exhibit is now filled with bright, new, kid-friendly components. The component that inspires the most dancing, wiggling and giggling is the shadow wall: a bright white wall in a dark room with adjustable colored lights where children can play with their shadow and layer the light to create new colors. The exhibit also features a light table surrounded by low stools attracts toddlers eager to stack blocks with sheer color inserts to play with projection. New model camerae obscurae throughout the exhibit invite visitors to experiment with focus and find the parallels between the inner workings of the eye and the camera.

During the development process, each component was prototyped and observed
in action. Although prototypes may appear rough around the edges, they provide important insights into how an exhibit will appeal to children at different developmental stages and whether it will work at all. Some experiments were taken out of the plan when staff observed that they did not hold children’s interest or inspire them to make connections; other new elements were inspired by offhand remarks or unexpected responses to prototypes during the observation period. Chris Sullivan, the Museum & Theatre’s Director of Exhibits, worked with staff to develop a series of prototype exhibit components; staff observed visitors interacting with the prototypes and used those observations to inform the final exhibit – although Sullivan is hesitant to use the word “final.”

Experimenting with a model camera obscura in the new exhibit.
Experimenting with a model camera obscura in the new exhibit.

“Our exhibits are always growing and evolving,” Chris says. “Visitors are learning from the exhibits, but we learn from our visitors, too.” The prototyping spiral – a series of exercises in design, testing, analysis and redesign – is an increasingly popular in the museum field, particularly children’s museums and science centers, which thrive on durable, hands-on exhibits that inspire open-ended learning.

At the opening celebration on October 16, the revitalized exhibit seemed to have
met its goal, mesmerizing toddlers and preschoolers (along with a few big kids
visiting from out of town) who darted happily between the shadow wall, the light
table and the camera obscura itself. Those seeking a more historical perspective – typically parents – picked up copies of the new background take-home brochure that details the history of the camera obscura phenomenon.

(Left to right): Director of Exhibits Chris Sullivan, former Board chair and ex- hibit founder Frederic L. Thompson and Executive Director Suzanne Olson at the opening celebration on October 16, 2013.
(Left to right): Director of Exhibits Chris Sullivan, former Board chair and ex- hibit founder Frederic L. Thompson and Executive Director Suzanne Olson at the opening celebration on October 16, 2013.

We will continue to offer guided tours of the Camera Obscura; tours offer a more in-depth history of the phenomenon and include a demonstration of the periscopic Camera Obscura’s rotating view of Portland and beyond. Tours are free with general museum admission and are also available separately for $4 per person. Call 207-828-1234 x231 or visit our calendar of events for scheduled tours.

For more images of the new exhibit Lights, Camera, Color: Exploring the Camera Obscura, visit www.kitetails.org.