10th Century Technology meets 21st Century Kids


Photo by Kaitlynn Perreault
Photo by Kaitlynn Perreault

The 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 new exhibit on the Museum’s third floor.

The exhibit’s central component – a periscopic Camera Obscura that offers a 360-degree view of Portland from a room without windows – was installed in 1994 (and don’t forget, even that is ancient history to the Museum’s core visitors, who were born several years into the 21st century). Now, nearly twenty years later, we have completely re-imagined the topic for a young audience with support from the Rines/Thompson Fund of the Maine Community Foundation.

light tableThe key to attracting young visitors: accessibility. Logistically, that means 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, giving them time to reflect upon the phenomenon and watch the world outside. (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.)

Accessibility is a psychological and developmental challenge as well, so we filled the two-room exhibit with bright new components that practically scream “kid-friendly.” The component that inspires the most dancing, wiggling and giggling is the light 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.

For those seeking a more historical perspective – typically parents – background on the camera obscura phenomenon is available in a take-home brochure that visitors can read any time – throughout the Museum as children play or later on at home.

The original exhibit debuted in 1994, one year after the Children’s Museum opened at its current location in the Arts District. Fred Thompson, chair of the capital campaign committee that brought the Museum to Free Street, was also instrumental in securing the donation from Kodak that made the periscopic Camera Obscura possible: a thick lens installed in the Museum’s cupola, along with a mirror that rotates mechanically to give Museum visitors the exhibit’s signature 360-degree view.

The rare, breathtaking views the exhibit provides have long been appreciated by Camera Obscura enthusiasts, art historians, photographers and travel writers (the exhibit has been featured in AAA Magazine and the Boston Globe). Now we hope that the revitalized exhibit will draw the appreciation of a broader audience – including the 1- to 10-year-olds that make up their core audience.

Chris Sullivan, our 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.”

“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.

Families are invited to celebrate the opening of Lights, Camera, Color: Exploring the Camera Obscura on Wednesday, October 16 from 10:30-11:30am. Light refreshments will be served and staff will be available to answer questions and share the exhibit development process with visitors. The event is free with admission.

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 ($9) and are also available separately for $4 per person. Call 207-828-1234 x231 or visit our calendar of events for scheduled tours.

Just Sew Stories: Hmong Culture Comes to Maine

Kue John Lor, the exhibit's co-curator, in traditional Hmong clothing

On Sunday, June 30th, the Children’s Museum & Theatre of Maine will celebrate the opening of Just Sew Stories: Hmong History Stitched, a new temporary exhibition within the acclaimed We Are Maine exhibit.

Just Sew Stories features more than a dozen costumes, toys and tapestries created in the traditional Hmong style of paj ntaub (literally translated as “flower cloth”). Long an important element of Hmong clothing and decorative arts, this intricate embroidery style evolved as the Hmong people were driven from their native countries during and after the Vietnam War, settling in refugee camps throughout Southeast Asia. As they traveled and resettled – many in the American Midwest – Hmong women used embroidery to tell the story of these migrations. The narrative tapestries they create are known as story cloths.

The exhibition was co-curated by Museum & Theatre staff and Hmong cultural consultant Kue John Lor with support from the Frances R. Dewing Foundation. In addition to the Hmong embroidery (most created by Lor’s aunt, Nao Vang, a Laos native living in Wisconsin), the exhibit features

Nao Vang (far right), paj ntaub artist, with her family in Thailand

interactive components, including felt boards that children can use to create their own story cloths.

In the spirit of cross-cultural learning, the exhibit opening celebration will also feature a short documentary about the Culture Scholars, four Portland High School students from around the world who work part-time at the Museum & Theatre leading programs that encourage families to learn about new cultures and share their own. The Children’s Museum & Theatre’s multicultural programming – including the Culture Scholars program, the We Are Maine exhibit and other endeavors – earned international recognition in 2012, when the Museum & Theatre was one of four children’s museums in the world to receive the MetLife Promising Practice Award.

New Exhibit: Child Inventor Service

There goes Sandy! She's an unstoppable inventor and the star of our new exhibit.

We’re in the home stretch of exhibit construction for Child Inventor Service, an exhibit that explores engineering through the eyes of Sandy, a young problem-solver, and her clubhouse full of exhibits and inventions. This is our first all-new, permanent exhibit since we opened We Are Maine in 2006, and we couldn’t be more proud! All of our staff – educators, exhibits and operations team members, development, marketing and administration – has been part of making this exhibit happen. The volunteers and philanthropy committee from Fairchild Semiconductor have been enthusiastic partners throughout many months of exhibit development, and they were essential to making the exhibit content accurate, authentic and fun. YOU have been a part of it, too! We’ve learned a lot from your feedback as members and visitors, from observing how you and your family engage with exhibits, and we’ve even prototyped components of this exhibit and brought them out onto the floors to get your input.

Thanks for your patience as that corner of Our Town has been under construction for the past few weeks. The exhibit will open to the public this Friday, June 15. (If you’re a member, you’re invited to attend a special exhibit opening party on Thursday evening, June 14 – email lucy@kitetails.org for details.)

For more info about the exhibit, I’ve pasted our press release below. And of course, to really understand what the exhibit’s all about, I hope you’ll come in and see it for yourself!


Portland, MaineThe Children’s Museum & Theatre of Maine will open Child Inventor Service, its first all-new, permanent exhibit since 2006. Resembling a child’s fantasy clubhouse crossed with a scientist’s laboratory, the exhibit invites children to use robotics, circuitry and other technology to devise creative solutions to problems in Our Town, the Museum’s child-size city.

The exhibit opening is the culmination of a fifteen-month collaboration with a team of volunteers (many engineers) from Fairchild Semiconductor, the exhibit sponsor and a key advisor. Fairchild is committed to supporting STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) literacy among Maine’s K-12 students. The Children’s Museum & Theatre of Maine creates hands-on exhibits that inspire discovery and imagination through exploration and play. This unique partnership, in which the sponsor provided financial support and staff expertise, proved vital to determining the exhibit’s direction and purpose.

“The engineers told us that they have trouble explaining their jobs to their own children,” says Suzanne Olson, the Museum & Theatre’s Executive Director. “That inspired us. We got excited about combining our expertise with theirs to create a place where engineering is not only comprehensible, but fun.”

The Museum & Theatre and Fairchild want the exhibit to inspire a lifelong interest in science and technology, making a long-term impact on Maine’s students, and ultimately, its workforce.

“I think the kids of today are picking up technology really fast,” says Jim Siulinksi, an Applications and Systems Engineer and member of the exhibit development committee. “If we can help them learn how these technologies work, they’ll want to learn more. This is key to developing the next generation of engineers and technology workers. It will give them the power to shape their own futures.”

The exhibit stars Sandy, a child inventor who uses technology to solve problems for her Our Town neighbors. A private opening for Museum members and Fairchild staff and their families will be held on the evening of Thursday, June 14. The exhibit opens to the public during regular Museum hours on Friday, June 15.

Sneak a peek at Smart Art!

It’s hard to believe that all these bits and pieces will soon be one big interactive exhibit. Talk about transformations!

I love the final weeks before a new exhibit opens – they’re busy and exciting for everyone on staff. Educators are planning new programs that will help introduce visitors to the new exhibit. The front line staff and those of us in the marketing department are learning all we can about the exhibit so we’ll be able to spread the word to members, visitors and the community. But it’s the exhibits and operations department who are especially busy – in just a few short weeks, they have to remove all traces of the departing exhibit and install all dozens of brand new components!

The incoming exhibit, Smart Art, will be open to the public this Friday, May 21st. This is the fifth exhibit in a very special series, the Environmental Exhibits Collaborative, or EEC (you may remember Turtle Travels, Treehouses, Attack of the Bloodsuckers, or Dinotracks – they were all a part of this collaborative, too). Our staff worked with a group of museums in New England and Canada to develop and build these exhibits; over the past five years, the exhibits have toured through all of our museums.

These little charmers will soon be butterflies in our butterfly garden. We’ll say we knew them when!

EEC exhibits have always been a lot of fun for us and our visitors, and I was especially excited to hear about some of the ways that Smart Art’s visit to the Children’s Museum & Theatre of Maine will be unique. We’ve chosen a local artist in residence, Galen Richmond, who will create musical art and work with our visitors. We’re also adding a butterfly garden to highlight the exhibit’s theme, transformation.

If you are a member or a volunteer, you’re invited to an exhibit opening on Thursday, May 20th from 5:30-7pm. We’ll have food, activities, special guests and good company. It’s a free event for the whole family! RSVP to Kathryn at kathryn@kitetails.org.  (And of course, if you become a member by Thursday, you’re invited, too! Click here for membership information.)

Dinosaurs make way for Whales!

Anyone who has visited us in the last week can tell that something BIG is coming to our Big Gallery! The Dinotracks! exhibit is officially extinct, and the Exhibits team has been working behind the scenes for months to prepare our next original exhibit, What About Whales?

This week, that work has moved from the design shop to the first floor as this exhibit takes shape. Dozens of games, signs, props, electronics and other components are being installed. Take a peek at a few photos of the exhibit in progress, and see if you can guess which piece is which!  See the comments for answers.

1. Vertebrae from a whale’s back          2. Baleen from a real whale

3.  Dock for whale watching      4.  Build-a-Whale game

Our members will be the first to explore the whole exhibit at a private opening event on Thursday evening (reason #548 to become a member!). What About Whales? will open to the public on Friday, January 22nd at 10am.