Sunday, October 25, 2009

With no small child to use as an excuse, I might have missed the Please Touch Museum. Lucky for me, however, an appointment took me to the Museum's intriguing new quarters in Fairmount Park, not far from the Philadelphia Museum. There are two stories here: the fantastic, brilliant, kid-centered museum designed for children under 7, and the remarkable architecture. In 1876 the first World's Fair in the United States was held in Philadelphia, and this beautiful Beaux Arts building, known then as Memorial Hall, was created as the Art pavilion. By some miracle, not only did the building survive when others were demolished (most were never intended to be permanent) but the interior detail is still here in exquisite authenticity. Part of the fun of the interior is the crazy contrast between bright, hip, kid-colored fittings and 19th century ornate grandeur. In the rotunda entry you're surrounded by sculpted swags and caryatids - fresh and tasteful in white, gold, salmon, and mauve - under a finely wrought iron and glass dome, a marvel of engineering of the time. It must once have held people spellbound, but now it goes unnoticed by most visitors, trumped by a more recent marvel - an enormous model of the arm of the Statue of Liberty made entirely of brightly colored toys by local artist Leo Sewell. (His hodgepodge elephant is elsewhere in the Museum.) I watched the kids and parents entering for a while and was struck by how well-designed the museum is for its purpose. Every little face lit up and every little body starting squirming in a dad's or mom's grasp; arms reached out and feet started churning before they even hit the ground. As soon as the parent set them down they were moving, straight for the good stuff. And the good stuff is everywhere; there's a splashy river to play and experiment with, a Wonderland maze, and a city with trucks and buses to explore, and lots more. Lucky kids! The grandeur reasserts itself when you leave, in the form of two heroic statues originally intended for 19th century Vienna - what a great new job they have, standing guard over all this fun.

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