Children's museum makes it big-time

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Janet Mendelsohn
Globe Correspondent / August 3, 2008

Kathryn de Jesus scurried to a wall covered with colorful wood blocks. On tiptoes, arms high overhead, the 5-year-old grabbed the top of a green rectangle and pulled herself up. Wriggling elbows, knees, tummy, and face, she brushed against a purple crescent, red and yellow triangles, a bright blue L. Each block made a sound. Birds chirped; squirrels chattered; voices, drums, violins, and a xylophone created a symphony - some would say a cacophony - that filled a room called the Music Matrix in the Children's Museum of Portsmouth. She twisted to look at the opposite wall, where sound-wave patterns danced on an electronic screen and tiny lights flashed in transparent ropes in response to her moves.

Kathryn will be happy to know that although the museum has just moved from its cozy old house in Portsmouth to a spacious former armory 12 miles away, she can still conduct her odd symphony in its colorful new surroundings. After closing for two months during the move, on July 23 the doors opened at what is now called the Children's Museum of New Hampshire, at 6 Washington St., in Dover.

There's more than fun going on here. "We call it learning by accident," said Denise Doleac, the museum's executive director. Be it subtle or sneaky, they've certainly found a fun way to teach math, social studies, and the mysteries of science. Resourceful staffers collaborated with area teachers and the New Hampshire Department of Education. They filled the old museum's limited space with interactive displays that since 1983 drew more than 90,000 visitors a year.

But there were problems. Though charming, the museum's intimate Victorian-era home in Portsmouth's Strawbery Banke historic district was too small, just 4,200 square feet. Activities were primarily for infants through elementary-school age. More restrooms were needed, and there was hardly any parking nearby.

Now the Children's Museum of New Hampshire has triple the exhibit space for many longtime favorites plus three new big attractions. The 20,000-square-foot Butterfield Building, which most recently served as a gym, has been extensively renovated. They broke through the roof for the new centerpiece, "Build It, Fly It," and installed a glass addition along the banks of the Cochecho River for another new anchor, "Cochecosystem," an indoor-outdoor, hands-on exhibit about the crucial role of rivers in the natural, industrial, and historical development of New England.

"We spent eight years looking for the right location and planning for the move," said Doleac. "We visited more than 30 children's museums to see what works, what doesn't. We wanted to avoid the feeling of cavernous space even though we renovated an old armory. Despite all that space, the new site re-creates the intimacy and sense of discovery that people have always liked about our museum."

Visitors will now find much that was impossible in Portsmouth: the museum's first snack bar, a room for coats and strollers, an elevator, dedicated performance space and classrooms, more restrooms, a much larger gift shop, an interior ramp, behind-the-scenes workshops for exhibit construction, and plenty of parking. Doleac said parents will have better sight lines to keep an eye on their children. In fact, everything will be easier, she predicted, with improved indoor traffic flow, more elbow room, and full wheelchair accessibility. Plus, Doleac and her staff will finally have offices on-site so they can see what's happening on the floors.

"Build It, Fly It" is based on the principles of aeronautics, physics, and design engineering, said Sue Kaufmann, exhibit director, who until now had to build exhibits in her home workshop. Four conveyors rise 40 feet high, reaching above the roof in a clerestory tower. "With chunks of foam, Velcro,

and other materials," said Kaufmann, "kids and adults can create structures and see if they can make them fly. They'll put them on the conveyor belts and crank them to the top where their creations will fall off." What happens next will be visible from anywhere in the museum.

"One World," another new exhibit, encompasses three areas to introduce cultures and customs from around the globe. At one, "Different Lands, Different Masks," youngsters can try on Japanese, African, Mexican, and Indonesian masks worn in traditional ceremonies; in "Global Soles," they'll find traditional and celebratory footwear, costumes, and wares; and at the Kids World Café, an expanded version of another longtime favorite, future chefs and foodies can pretend to cook, serve, and sample international cuisines.

But the showstopper may be "Cochecosystem," a multifaceted experience. Area artists and crafts-people helped design the exhibit that moves from a cascading soft-sculpture waterfall to a replica 1800s textile mill with machinery and looms to operate by hand, and beyond, to the river where humans, birds, fish, insects, and animals must adapt to ecological change. On the waterfront, visitors can board a Piscataqua River gundalow, the boat used by New Englanders for 200 years to haul bricks to build the mills and carry bolts of newly woven cloth to waiting ships on the Portsmouth docks. Youngsters here can build wigwams, weave mats, fish for alewives, and communicate by drumming to learn about a local Native American tribe, the Pennacook, who lived along the Cochecho River. They can see the world through the eyes of a beaver, caddis fly, osprey, and alewife, or pretend to be naturalists investigating specimens in a 19th-century study.

Back in Portsmouth one morning this spring, shouts of "wow!" and high-pitched giggles accompanied five pairs of short jumping legs visible under a human-sized kaleidoscope. It, too, has moved to Dover. The children hidden inside were surrounded by endless mirrored images of themselves twirling and bouncing, an eye-popping sight as I discovered myself when I slipped in later. "Pattern Palace," another old favorite, will be installed later this year so junior construction workers and interior decorators can learn about shapes as they put the finishing touches on a throne room by using the building blocks of math and language, often without realizing it.

Kids can still deliver mail to and from an old-fashioned post office while young archeologists dig and compare Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops "bones" as Dino Detectives in an exhibit that has doubled in size. The biofeedback exhibit, Play It Cool, made the move, too, including the EEG-inspired MindBall game in which two players compete wearing special headbands that use brain waves to control a ball. Calmness rules. "It teaches the value of quietness," said Kaufmann. "You win by not trying to win." Not just for kids, it's a favorite among teachers, and among husbands and wives.

The Yellow Submarine, the old museum's signature exhibit, was really a play structure. It has been replaced by a smaller but more realistic free-standing sub. Undersea experiences are simulated with new components such as sonar, lockers, and bunk beds.

Like other parents I met that morning, Ruth de Jesus, of Somersworth, was eager for the Dover grand opening. "This museum is the best," she said as we both tapped tunes on the Music Matrix wall.

Janet Mendelsohn can be reached at

If You Go

The Children's Museum of New Hampshire

6 Washington St., Dover, N.H.


Monday-Saturday 10 a.m.- 5 p.m., Sunday noon-5. After Labor Day, closed Mondays except major holidays and school vacation weeks. Adults and children over 1 year $7, seniors $6, under 1 and members free.

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