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.

White Cane Walk Grand Marshals: Senator King and our own Renaldo Rodriguez!

Senator Angus King and Renaldo Rodriguez chat about Maine’s White Cane Law while puppeteer Bridget Fehrs looks on.
Senator Angus King and Renaldo Rodriguez chat about Maine’s White Cane Law while puppeteer Bridget Fehrs looks on.

Independence is the word! Renaldo Rodriguez and Senator Angus King have accepted invitations to be the Marshals of the 18th annual Iris Network White Cane Walk for Independence on Saturday, October 19th. The white cane is a mobility tool for individuals who are visually impaired or blind and October is White Cane Safety month. It symbolizes independence, something both Renaldo and Senator King believe in.

Who is Renaldo Rodriguez? The White Cane Walk’s Grand Marshal, Renaldo is a member of the Children’s Museum & Theatre of Maine’s Kids on the Block® puppet troupe, a disability-awareness program. Theatre Artistic Director Reba Short notes, “KOTB teaches children about disabilities and to accept them.  Renaldo is an 11 year old boy who uses a white cane. He teaches kids about visual impairment and blindness. We are delighted that Renaldo will be leading the Walk this year!”

Senator King signed the White Cane Bill into law in 1999 when he was then Governor of the State of Maine. Maine’s White Cane Law ensures that people who are visually impaired or blind and who use a white cane or dog guide have the same right as sighted pedestrians to travel safely on foot. The Law notes that traffic should yield, as always to pedestrians in the cross-walk. Drivers should not shout or gesture at individuals using a white cane or a dog guide.

The White Cane Walk for Independence is held every October to coincide with White Cane Safety month. It starts and ends at Monument Square in Portland. It is a cheerful 1.2 mile stroll through the Old Port and the proceeds raised provide training, education and support for people with vision loss or blindness throughout the State of Maine.

About The Iris Network

The Iris Network is a state-wide, community-based private nonprofit with a vision of building a world where no person is limited by visual impairment or blindness and everyone is an advocate for eye health and the needs of people who are visually impaired or blind.  Based in Portland, The Iris Network has field-offices in Saco, Lewiston, Bangor, Houlton, Augusta and Rockland.   For more information about any vision loss related issue, visit The Iris Network at www.theiris.org.

Update: Playscape will pop-up once again on August 31st!

Earlier this summer, we posted about our first Pop-Up Playscape event, which was a huge hit! Nearly 100 kids and adults came out to create an amazing box city with countless creative twists. Lots of people took notice! The event was featured in The Forecaster, on WCSH6, and it’s even been highlighted on the home page of the Maine Community Foundation (support for this project came from their Cumberland County Fund).

Here's where to find us on Saturday, 8/31 from 12-6.
Here’s where to find us on Saturday, 8/31 from 12-6.

There’s one more chance to get in on the fun! We’ll be on the Eastern Promenade on Saturday, August 31st. Want to know a little more before you go – like why this project is great for developing young minds? I’ve put together some background info about open-ended play, as well as some insider tips for the day of the event. No time to read ahead? No problem! Just arrive with an open mind and some willing builders, and the rest will fall into place. We’ll see you there! (Don’t forget to RSVP on Facebook and share it with your friends!)

What is “open-ended” or “child directed” play?

Stated simply, it just means going with the flow. There is no pressure or rules to follow. The point is not to produce a specific finished product. It’s all about free play and exploration — the opportunity to invent and discover.

Kids led the way at our first Pop-Up Playscape event on 7/22.
Kids led the way at our first Pop-Up Playscape event on 7/22.

What are “loose parts”?

Loose parts (like boxes, sticks and stones, bottle caps or other recycled materials) are objects that are easily moved and used for play, games and art. They can be carried, rolled, lifted, piled, or combined to create different types of structures and experiences.

Why are we playing with loose parts and letting the children drive?

To encourage healthy development and build life important life skills! Play and art-making contribute to growth and development because they encourage children to test, explore and discover in a safe space. This type of play requires children to manipulate their environment and experiment with different materials in order to learn. They figure things out for themselves! Stationary materials or a set of rules can restrict the ways children can manipulate the environment, thereby restricting opportunities for creativity, problem-solving or taking healthy risks. Environments like Pop-Up Playscapes aim to be rich in loose parts and allow for extensive manipulation of the environment and experimentation that can lead to innovation. Plus, when kids have a chance to make something amazing on their own without being “right” or “wrong,” they build self-esteem.

Continue reading “Update: Playscape will pop-up once again on August 31st!”

Show and Tell Gallery showcases biggest collection yet!

Louisa creates a sign for the fourth annual Show and Tell Gallery.

More than 40 artists ages 5 to 17 from as far away as Caribou and Limestone submitted work for the 2013 Show and Tell Gallery, a collection of work by youth on the autism spectrum. Each April since 2009, the Children’s Museum & Theatre of Maine has collected art work by young people with autism spectrum disorder and hangs the show for Autism Awareness Month. The show will be on display in the Museum & Theatre’s Stairwell Gallery through August 2013.

Artist Olivia Frankl created this remarkable reproduction of a Monet.

This year’s gallery includes more than 60 pieces, ranging from fanciful pipe cleaner dragons to striking photographs to a remarkably faithful replica of Monet’s The Boat at Giverny. Many students submitted work with encouragement from art teachers and special education professionals who recognized both their students’ talent and the value of an opportunity to share their creativity.

“Some children on the spectrum struggle with communication and may not speak to peers or

“Worry Not Dolls” by artist Kayla Campbell illustrates the creative use of mixed media you’ll see throughout the gallery.

teachers about their achievements,” says Louisa Donelson, the educator at the Children’s Museum & Theatre of Maine who founded the gallery and responsible for its curation. “The Show and Tell Gallery gives them an opportunity to take pride in their work. Their teachers, families and even classmates come to see it. It helps the whole community recognize how much kids on the spectrum are capable of, and how many Maine families are affected by spectrum disorders.”

Support from Ronald McDonald House Charities of Maine and Walmart funds both the Show and Tell Gallery and Play Our Way, a series of free,

Louisa (bottom center) accepts Maine Autism Alliance’s Step Up! for Autism Award on behalf of the Children’s Museum & Theatre of Maine.

private playtimes for children on the autism spectrum and their families. This funding also supports a series of small art workshops led by Donelson for youth on the autism spectrum. (Space is still available in spring workshops; interested families can email louisa@kitetails.org for information.)

Last Wednesday (April 3rd), the Maine Autism Alliance awarded the Museum & Theatre one of its first Step Up for Autism awards, recognizing the Show and Tell Gallery, Donelson’s art workshops, and the Play Our Way Playtimes as vital resources for Maine’s autism community.

Penguins in Portland: Making a Splash!

Last April, I received a large manila envelope from Skillin Elementary School. Inside I found a stack of handwritten letters from every student in Diana Violette’s second grade classroom asking me to build a live penguin exhibit here at the Children’s Museum & Theatre of Maine. Each letter offered a persuasive argument for the exhibit, and several suggested specific species and even offered tips for overcoming potential challenges. All were accompanied by colorful illustrations and diagrams.

The letters were written as part of an assignment given to the class by Amber Lane, a student teacher from University of New England. They were so convincing that I was compelled to respond to them publicly. While we weren’t to build a penguin habitat, we have opened Penguins in Portland, an exhibition of the students’ letters and illustrations alongside penguin photographs by Brian Sullivan. The exhibit will be on display in our front stairwell gallery through November 12.

On Monday, the students who sent the letters (now third graders) came to see their work on display at the Children’s Museum. While the letters were submitted by just one classroom, the entire third grade came to see the exhibit. It was thrilling to see the kids respond to their work, and to see how happy all the students were for their classmates. It was also exciting to see how much they had learned – and still remembered – from the project. As they ran up and down the stairs searching for their work, they also made very astute observations about the penguin photos!

Reporters from The Current and The Forecaster were there to document the students’ visit and take photos – click through to read their stories:

The Forecaster: South Portland students ask for penguins, get Portland art exhibit by David Harry

The Current: South Portland students inspire museum project by Duke Harrington

We Won! Our Cultural Policies Received the 2012 MetLife Promising Practice Award

The community comes together at a celebration of India.

The Children’s Museum & Theatre of Maine received the MetLife Foundation Promising Practice Award and a $10,000 grant in recognition of the Museum & Theatre’s innovative cultural policies. The award was presented on Thursday, May 10 at Interactivity 2012, the Association of Children’s Museums’ international conference, held this year in Portland, Oregon. The Museum & Theatre was among four children’s museums selected from an international pool of applicants to receive the honor.

This year’s theme was the important role of children’s museums in nurturing global citizens. The Museum & Theatre was recognized for its unique policies guiding the development and delivery of cultural programs. These policies include the requirement that cultural programs must be developed with input from a community partner who is of the culture the program seeks to explore.

Suzanne Olson (the Museum & Theatre's Executive Director) pictured with Rohit Burman (Director, MetLife Foundation) at the 2012 Association of Children's Museums conference in Portland, Oregon.

“These policies challenge us to create personal, experience-based programs that span cultures from around the globe but are also sourced within our local community,” says Olson. “Our educators facilitate programs as conversations. We don’t give authoritative presentations that attempt to define or speak for an entire culture. This creates a safe space for children and adults to converse about their place in the world and explore the connections they have with others.”

Other 2012 Promising Practice Award recipients were the Treehouse Museum for Children in Ogden, Utah; the Explore & More Children’s Museum in Aurora, New York; and the Magic Bean House Children’s Museum in Beijing, China.

A modern Maine explorer

Maine Museums: Art, Oddities & Artifacts
Janet's book will be available June 6.

As my friends and family can attest, I’m a bit nuts about museums. Day trips and vacations are never complete without discovering a new museum or two. One of the things I love about working in public relations here at the Museum & Theatre is giving tours – when I guide someone through our exhibits, I find that I get to rediscover it for myself, too! Over a year ago, I met writer Janet Mendelsohn, who was working on a book about museums in Maine. Janet had visited us before to write this neat article for the Boston Globe about our Camera Obscura, but this was the first time she explored the Museum & Theatre from top to bottom, asking insightful questions and observing our visitors at play. She went on to do that with dozens of other museums and has now published the resulting book, Maine Museums: Art, Oddities & Artifacts. I wanted to learn more about her journey through Maine and get tips on which museums to hit on my next day trip, so I asked Janet to share some of her findings with us.

Lucy:   What made you decide to write about museums in Maine?

Janet:  When I travel, I visit museums—Boston, New York, Paris, Madrid,

Janet Mendelsohn (photo by Stu Rosner)

 Atlanta, Washington. While obviously there are great collections in all those cities, my favorites are in Maine. People here feel and express a more powerful connection to both this place and the past. The stories they choose to tell through fine and folk art, history and memorabilia, from logging equipment to scrimshaw, is the story of Maine and the nation and it’s most often told on a personal level. In local history museums, we hear from mill girls and women struggling to hold on to their homes when their young husbands went off to fight in the Civil War. Here at the Children’s Museum, kids can ‘try on’ what it’s like to be a farmer or to work on cars. Moreover, Maine’s museum directors, curators, staff and volunteers are excited about what they do. They’re happy to answer questions, even if you don’t have a reporter’s notebook in your hand. It was a fun project.    

Lucy: For many people, being a travel writer sounds like a dream job! How did you find success in this field? 

Janet:  I wish I could say I’m one of those lucky journalists who get to travel the globe and someone else picks up the bill. I’m not. But as a freelancer, when I travel I can often interest an editor in a related story and get paid for writing it, which is what I love to do most. My first freelance piece about Maine, about 12 years ago, was for Maine Boats, Homes & Harbors, a wonderful magazine. I had gone to the Isles of Shoals, off Kittery and Portsmouth, to visit the recreation of Celia Thaxter’s Island Garden. It’s so remote and simple but magical, with old fashioned flowers like those she described in her book. I tried to capture that sense of distance, real and historical. I guess it worked because I’ve been writing for Maine Boats ever since.

Lucy: Clearly you have a love for museums (and, given my occupation, so do I!). What do you say to someone who thinks that museums are old-fashioned or stuffy? How would you convince the contemporary consumer of the relevance of museums in our current, high-speed culture?

Janet: Another reason I wrote the book is to help kids and adults discover

Nowetah's American Indian Museum in New Portland displays Native American arts and crafts of all the Americas. Photo by Janet Mendelsohn.

 that museums today are fun. In this economy, they can’t survive if they don’t get creative about using new technology, installing multimedia exhibits, and planning events that engage people (including parents!) with shorter attention spans. We’re all so attached to our cell phones. Video games keep setting the bar higher for visual effects. Plus many of us have less money to spend on travel and entertainment, so it had better be worthwhile if they’re going to get us in the door. Museums in Maine are now lending visitors iPads and installing high tech kiosks to enhance what we see and do in the galleries. Many have terrific summer and vacation week programs for children and adults, special events like logging competitions and military reenactments. As for relevance?  Until you see a great painting or the craftsmanship of a Native American basket up close, you can’t appreciate its beauty. Until you’re face-to-face with textile looms, whaling gear or ice harvesting tools, you can’t appreciate what those jobs were like.   

Lucy: The “oddities” part of the title makes me very curious! What did you discover on your journey through Maine that was most surprising – your “oddest oddity,” shall we say?

Janet:  I’d have to say the Umbrella Cover Museum on Peaks Island, although the Bigfoot specimens at the International Cryptozoology Museum are right up there. But they’re not the only ones. [Note: the Criptozoology Museum is just a few blocks west of us on Congress Street! -Lucy]


Would-be sea captains and sailors find plenty of hands-on activities at the Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport. Photo courtesy of Penobscot Marine Museum.

Lucy: Are there any hidden gems for families – spots parents could take children that seem to be under the radar?

Janet:  Maine Maritime Museums in Bath has a one-weekend family boatbuilding workshop, a pirate ship to climb all over and lighthouse and nature cruises on the Kennebec. Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport has a hands-on marine science lab and the “Peapod” where kids can dress up in 19th century clothing, play with ships models and learn to tie knots. The Wendell Gilley Museum of wood carving, on Mount Desert Island, has art, natural history and wildlife protection programs, including carving lessons for ages 11 and up.  

Lucy: Which destination was your personal favorite? Was there one place you connected with more than any other?

Janet: You want me to choose? The Portland Museum of Art and the Farnsworth Art Museum are national caliber, the Colby and Bowdoin college art collections probably are, too. The Saco Museum brought history alive for me with its personal stories. The Osher Map Library collection is full of exquisite rare art that served a practical purpose. Sabbathday Lake Shaker Village was especially interesting. It’s the only active Shaker community left in the world. I could go on and on.

Lucy: Are you already thinking about your next writing adventure? What topic would you like to explore next?

Janet:  I recently visited Louisa May Alcott’s home, Orchard House, where she wrote Little Women. I keep thinking about how I felt standing beside the little desk in her bedroom where she wrote the book. It’s telling me something but I’m not yet sure what.

Want to win a signed copy of Janet’s book? Visit our Facebook page and keep an eye out for the question we post on June 7. Answer it and you’ll be entered in a drawing to win a signed copy of Maine Museums: Art, Oddities & Artifacts (Countryman Press).

Putting the brakes on the “summer slide”

Early this summer I was invited to attend a PTO meeting at Plummer Motz Elementary School (my alma mater!) in Falmouth. The topic of discussion was the dreaded “summer slide” – learning losses that children may suffer if they’re not getting any intellectual stimulation during the summer months. The room was packed – clearly this was a topic of great concern to parents. I, along with a panel of teachers, education experts, and librarians, were there to offer tips and suggestions as the parents took diligent notes. I know that everyone left that meeting with every intention of maintaining a rigorous academic regimen for the next ten weeks… then there was camp. And playdates. And the week at grandma’s. And visiting relatives. And summer soccer league. And suddenly a back to school commercial popped up during “America’s Got Talent” and it was already [gulp]… August?!

Playing pretend is a great way to develop problem solving skills.

The good news is, your summer activities have probably already provided your children with a lot of the stimulation they need to keep their young minds alert and growing. Summer learning doesn’t require stacks of flash cards or work books full of word problems – a lot of the things you do every day keep young minds active and engaged. The Museum & Theatre’s philosophy (backed up by volumes of educational research) is that unstructured play is a vital component of learning. Whether it’s a board game, a tree fort, or just a game of “let’s pretend,” the activities children choose during their free play time are helping them learn essential life skills.

Here are a few suggestions for increasing the educational impact of your summer fun. Try incorporating a few of these strategies before school starts up in a few weeks!

Fun (and free!) learning opportunities are right in our backyard!

Plan it! Whether it’s a trip into town for the afternoon or a cross-country plane trip to a new city, planning any sort of voyage engages a broad spectrum of skills. Mapping a route, working within a budget, and scheduling activities are tasks children of all ages can participate in with the appropriate amount of guidance. Set parameters and challenges for a child to work with. Try planning a green day trip that uses public transportation, bikes, or pedestrian routes; set a tiny per-person budget and find out how many low- or no-cost activities you can find in a weekend; plan a “locovore” day, visiting only locally owned businesses and eateries (use Portland Buy Local for ideas). Giving a child ownership of an activity can inspire amazing creativity – and lead your family on new adventures!

Continue reading “Putting the brakes on the “summer slide””

We’re on TV!

I can’t stop watching this YouTube clip. No, it’s not a cat playing the piano – it’s the new public service announcement created for us by WCSH 6! It’s exciting to see my home away from home on TV, of course, but what really keeps me watching is the spirit of play it captures. When I wander the Museum with a regular still camera, I get a lot of fun shots, but parents always seem to duck out of the way. Nathan, who shot the video, was able to capture the joy, exuberance and silliness that parents get to express when they’re at play here with their children. What I see in the PSA that’s so special is the same thing I see every day, but never seem to capture on film: parents and children learning from each other and exploring together.

We can’t thank WCSH and the team behind this PSA – Caroline, Aimee and Nathan – enough for their great work on this! Keep an eye out for the clip the next time you’re watching channel 6!

Brain Power: Studying Young Minds and How to Teach Them

The Museum & Theatre is always filled with children under five learning and discovering through our exhibits and activities. It is exciting to see the power of play grow stronger as research progresses! In this New York Times article, Benedict Carey explores new research in the development of children before the age of 5. For the better part of the last century, educators believed,

that children could not learn math at all before the age of five, that their brains simply were not ready.

However, researchers and educators are finding that young children are able to learn simple math through play and math based activities. Click here to read the full article.

Search “Key Bank” in our Calendar of Events to find programs like Smart Shopping and This Little Piggy Saves, which offer math based play with practical applications.