New Exhibit Now Open: the Be Well Center!

Part of the mural in our new Be Well Center!
A visitor to our opening celebration examines slides using the video microscope!
A visitor to our opening celebration examines slides using the video microscope!

 

With the support of the Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital at Maine Medical Center, the Children’s Museum & Theatre of Maine just opened our newest exhibit: the Be Well Center! This new exhibit features an Ambearlance, real medical equipment such as stethoscopes and a video microscope (with slides of real cells!), and plenty of teddy bears to rescue and make better. Here you can pretend to be a doctor, nurse, or EMT (the people who drive the ambulance and get you to the hospital!). You can use real scales and stethoscopes to give a teddy bear a check-up, and then record the info you find on the bear’s very own medical chart!

Our own Chris Sullivan, who was in charge of making the Be Well Center, said that the Be Well Center is designed to encourage kids to explore, work together, and learn to be nice to people who are hurt, sick, or have to go to the doctor. Dr. Lorraine McElwain, Associate Chief of Pediatrics at Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital said that the idea is  “…to engage children and their families in their own health and wellness, and maybe make a future visit to a hospital or doctor’s office less intimidating.” She’s also hoping that maybe some of the kids who play here will grow up to be real doctors and nurses!

 

 

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A group of visitors works together to take care of their patient.

Here kids can act out everything from a medical emergency to a regular doctor’s visit, learning about their own bodies and the jobs of medical professionals along the way. There’s all sorts of medical stuff you can play with, like an exam table, scale, a height chart, and a movie showing what’s really happening when you move parts of your body!

 

 

 

A young 'EMT' hangs up the phone after communicating with the Ambearlance.
A young ‘EMT’ hangs up the phone after communicating with the Ambearlance.

 

As a permanent part of Our Town (right next to the farm), the Be Well Center is included with regular entrance fees. Come join in the fun!

 

ABOUT OUR SPONSOR

Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital at Maine Medical Center is a non-profit organization benefiting from generous community support. From routine check-ups and immunizations, to the treatment of life-threatening illnesses and injuries, Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital provides comprehensive, family-centered healthcare for all of northern New England. With 109 beds, including 31 Level III NICU Beds and 20 Level II Continuing Care Nursery beds, it is Maine’s premier referral hospital, offering services not available elsewhere in the state.

 

 

The new exhibit.
The new exhibit.

 

 

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.

Meet Sandy, Our Town’s Child Inventor

coming soonA new exhibit is opening in Our Town this spring, but plans have been underway for more than a year. Get the inside scoop on how an idea becomes an exhibit from Chris Sullivan, our Director of Exhibits and Operations.

Fairchild Semiconductor dedicates its philanthropic efforts to early childhood science education for many reasons, one of them very practical: they need engineers! They are eager to hire Maine engineers, which means they need Maine kids to get excited about math and science early so they’ll pursue higher education and careers in the field of engineering. They have supported the Museum & Theatre’s science programming for years. In November 2010, we began discussions with their philanthropy committee regarding a new exhibit: a hands-on engineering exhibit that would reach children outside of the classroom, placing engineering in the context of imaginative play.

fairchildarticlequote-jimPhase One: Engineering Crash Course

Before we could find a way to introduce engineering concepts to children, we had to understand them ourselves. When our work began, we had no idea what semiconductors are, how integrated circuits work or why there are eight bits in a byte. A committee of Fairchild staff members – volunteers from departments across the company – was assembled to help us. With their guidance, we toured of Fairchild’s testing, development and fabrication facilities, engaged in hands-on experimentation, saw how silicone is grown, and learned about the chemical and physical processes that transform it into a chip. We learned that even one task requires the work of many different types of engineers. For example, if Fairchild is creating a chip that allows high definition movies to play from a cell phone without increasing the phone’s size, someone will need to design a new chemical process to create the smaller chip, and someone else will coordinate where the new machines will be placed for smooth production. Then, even after the chip is made, other engineers will continue to test and experiment with it to see what other uses it might have. Soon we had a new appreciation for the cutting edge work these individuals are doing and how many different types of thinkers are required to do it effectively: electrical engineers, chemical engineers, mechanical engineers, machine operators and technicians.

Our own understanding of engineering grew quickly, but our ultimate goal still seemed daunting: how could we make this comprehensible and interesting for children? The answer came from the engineers themselves. When asked what had interested them as children, they had all loved solving problems. Whether they were solving equations or dismantling the family television set, they’d been curious about how things worked. Now, as engineers (whether they use a computer or a wrench), they apply that natural curiosity and creativity, along with math and science skills, to discover and define how things work.

Our staff attended a demonstration by the South Portland Robotics Team and left amazed and inspired. The final exhibit will have a robotics component.
Our staff attended a demonstration by the South Portland Robotics Team and left amazed and inspired. The final exhibit will have a robotics component.

We had found our starting point, the essence of engineering itself: problem-solving. When presented as an opportunity to experiment, rather than a science test, engineering naturally appeals to children’s creativity.

Phase Two: Causing Problems

Sparking children’s curiosity is a natural fit for our work, so we were excited to get started. The challenge: today’s technology is so pervasive and integral to daily life that children may be less likely to question or investigate it than they were in decades past. More sophisticated technology also presents fewer opportunities for experimentation. (How would you go about taking apart an iPod, or a DVD player mounted in the back of a car seat?)

We were determined to create opportunities for experimentation – to give children problems to solve. To make these problems inviting and integrate them into Our Town (itself a well-used, curiosity-inspiring area), we created Sandy Fairchild, Child Inventer. Her laboratory, which will be installed in the former vet clinic space, will feature several hands-on experiments designed to assist Sandy’s Our Town neighbors with practical problems. Children will apply science, math, spatial reasoning and technology skills to devise creative, open-ended solutions. Our collaboration with Fairchild gives us a team of engineers who are ready to help us implement the technological aspects of the exhibit.

Before going forward with fabrication plans for a circuit board (top), we try out a low-tech prototype (bottom).
Before going forward with fabrication plans for a circuit board (top), we try out a low-tech prototype (bottom).

We’re now in the midst of designing interactive components to fill the space. We start with intensive prototyping work. These prototypes are low-tech and designed to gauge children’s response to the component’s concept. Have you ever been to Museum and seen a staff member inside a cardboard box, acting like a computer? Were there others nearby, jotting down notes? You helped us develop an exhibit! Observing your child at play helps us determine our next steps. Prototyping involves a lot of research, brainstorming, false starts, critical dialogue and plenty of trial and error. These prototypes are rough, but they help us anticipate and resolve some technical kinks and discover the concepts and challenges that keep young visitors engaged.

Phase Three: Nuts & Bolts & Beyond

As our prototyping phase draws to a close, we enter the fabrication stage when we create and install the pieces that will become Sandy’s laboratory. Informed by our prototype observations, we’ll finalize our design plans, keeping in mind factors like visual appeal, safety and durability. We determine which pieces can be fabricated by our own staff and work with external designers and fabricators for some of our more complex components. For Sandy’s experiments, we’ll be working closely with engineers at Fairchild to ensure that the technology we use is safe and will stand up to heavy use from visitors of all ages. We also spend this time researching and writing text for the exhibit signs that will enhance the visitor experience. Soon, Sandy’s lab will be open for hands-on exploration of robotics, communications technology, circuitry and more.

fairchildarticlequote-jennThe exhibit is expected to open in late spring of 2012, nearly 18 months after our process began. (Stay subscribed to our email list for the opening announcement.) Sandy is an active inventor, so we’ll continue to work with Fairchild to develop and introduce new experiments periodically. We’re excited to offer our visitors a new way to play and explore, and we’re even more excited to think about the bigger implications of Sandy’s arrival. How many bright engineering minds will this exhibit inspire? What technologies will they invent? How will those inventions change the world? How big an impact can one small exhibit have? We can’t wait to find out!

Questions? Feedback? Contact Chris Sullivan at chris@kitetails.org.

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.)

What About Whales? swims into the Museum & Theatre

Lobtailing, breaches and flukes abounded last night at the exhibit opening party for What About Whales?. We had over 150 guests, some delicious krill and tours of the exhibit, including a dramatic lowering of Istar, our life-sized inflatable whale! The night was a big hit with our member and volunteer families. We would like to thank Cakes Extraordinaire, Harbor Fish Market, Shaw’s Supermarkets and Yosaku for their generous donations of whale-worthy treats.

Here are tons of excited little whale watchers exploring the new exhibit.

More pictures in the next TWO posts!