Where Gumbo Was #527
The Brooklyn Children's Museum is so modern, open and full of child-friendly delights (with a good bit of education folded in) that it's hard to realize it's actually the oldest children's museum in the U.S. and possibly the world.
Despite its world-class status, it's a very Brooklyn place, with many exhibits connecting kids to sights they see at home and in the city, and to the many cultures that call Brooklyn home. That kitchen wallpaper, by the way, has pictures of dumplings from 45 different parts of the world.
Exhibits are full of thought-provoking questions: "What photos are special to you?" with samples of other children's responses.
Unlike most museums, it's not in a 'downtown' or 'cultural center' setting; it's smack in the middle of central Brooklyn's Crown Heights residential neighborhood, in (and under) Brouwer Park.
Depending on the day and hour, it's busy with parents and toddlers or older kids, or with school trips. An intriguing slanted tunnel, paired with a water channel and water play, leads visitors from ground level deep into the heart of the museum.
Among the first exhibits at the end of the tunnel is a music-and-dance space that sometimes has live action, but always shows videos of a variety of dance performances representing many cultures. Next to it are cases full of instruments from all over the world.
The multi-cultural theme continues in World Brooklyn, an area with several storefronts offering kids a chance to play with a variety of materials, including an international grocery store with a sign highlighting the food planning for different groups.
There's also a market for African goods that includes an exhibit on the different ways masks are used in African and other societies and has a station for children to make their own masks.
Not to mentioon a Caribbean-themed travel agency that doubles as a primer on the Caribbean 'mas camp' tradition that includes the wildly colorful costumes worn in Brooklyn's annual West Indian Day parade in September, a local version of Carnival celebrations from the Caribbean.
And, being Brooklyn, there's also a pizzeria...
There are also plenty of spaces for somewhat less-directed 'child's play' in several parts of the museum. Here's a sandbox with a colorful background, a reading nook and a 'little theater' area.
A large area is set aside as a 'building zone,' with plenty oof pieces to create bridges, buildings, boats or, perhaps we might say, sculpture. And for those who don't mind getting wet (or taking wet children home) there are elaborate spaces for water play.
There are plenty of nooks for small groups to work or play together.
The museum also has outdoor space, but that's mainly for warmer weather than when I visited. Offerings include Art Rink, a canopied ice-skating rink that uses an artificial ice that isn't cold or wet, and is soft enough to fall on!
Back inside, two more major areas to explore: Nature and Noise (really, sound). The nature exhibits are centered on an artificial pond area which includes both living (the turtles) and modeled animals in lifelike habitats.
The sound exhibit goes big on hands-on, including a variety of electronic tools to play with mixing, the large A-frame percussion device and an unusual set of free-standing organ pipes that visitors can control with a sequencer.
My two favorites in the world of sound, though, were possibly the simplest. Remember, as a kid, walking by a picket fence, dragging a stick along it to make noise (and possibly annoy the homeowner)? Well, it turns out we were playing a 'Fence Marimba.' Who knew? And last, a reminder of the days when we gave our energetic children a pot or bucket to bang on...
A little museum history: It first opened in 1899, right about where it is now, but in a single town house, perhaps similar to the one modeled below in 19th and 20th century versions. By 1905, the museum was getting 13,000 visitors a month. By 1929, when it expanded into another house, 60,000 a month were visiting.
While the Great Depression was a disaster for many institutions, it turned out too be a boon for the Children's Museum: it got help from hundreds of workers and funding from the Works Progress Administration, and a well-publicized visit from Eleanor Roosevelt.
Eventually, though, the two houses became too small for the museum's big audience, and the houses were hard to maintain. In 1975, they were replaced by the new building; in 1996 it was renovated to create more small spaces and in 2005, the building was expanded to double its previous size.
And, congratulations to Professor Abe and George G, who correctly identified our mystery location!