Published: Jul 08, 2008 01:52 PM
Modified: Jul 08, 2008 01:52 PM
Kidzu prepares to re-open with its first unique exhibit
CHAPEL HILL -- Cathy Maris arranged a dozen or so short lengths of magnetized pipe -- some straight, some curved -- just the way she wanted them on the metal wall, and then she set the Gravitron in motion.She dropped a plastic ball into an opening at the bottom of a big clear column. An Archimedes screw inside lifted the ball slowly up, up, up, until it reached the top and began rolling along a track toward the metal wall, whereupon it dropped into the first section of pipe. It rolled and dropped and plopped its way down the winding maze of a path she had arranged; if you remember the game Mousetrap, you get the general idea. Success. The ball popped out of the final section of pipe like rain from a downspout and plunked squarely into the target box at the bottom."Yes!" Maris cried. "How cool is that?"Pretty cool. In fact, although everything in the newly transformed Kidzu Children's Museum is designed for kids, the youngest visitors may find themselves competing with their parents for playing time on some of the new gadgets and features."Part of what we're after is making Kidzu a place where children can have a great time learning and being creative, and where their parents can do the same," said Maris, executive director of Kidzu. "What could be better?"Kidzu, the popular museum for young children in downtown Chapel Hill, has been closed for a month while staff, contractors, volunteers and a battalion of local artists have been working to create its first original, permanent exhibit. The museum will welcome the public for the grand opening of "KidZoom: The Power of Creativity" on Friday. The museum, at 105 E. Franklin St., will be open with free admission all day.During the two years since Kidzu opened downtown, the museum has offered a succession of traveling exhibits rented from other children's museums nationwide. Although many of those traveling exhibits were wonderful, Maris said, they have limitations. They are expensive, and because they belong to someone else Kidzu wasn't free to adapt or change them to suit the local community. Also, there's simply a limited number of first-rate traveling exhibits available; after two years, Kidzu had just about exhausted the ones that would be a good fit.So, all along, Kidzu's organizers planned to recreate the museum around its own unique original exhibit, designed by and for this community. Hence KidZoom. "The idea from the start was to focus on creativity," said exhibit manager Melanie Hatz Levinson, who worked for a decade on the curatorial staff of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. "This is a chance for us to show the creativity of this community -- and not just to show it, but to invite everyone to participate in it, to interact with it. We wanted to push the envelope in making everything in here interactive. Rather than present a set of static exhibits, we want to offer experiences."To that end, virtually everything in Kidzu invites its young -- and old -- visitors to touch, to change, to explore, to create. At the "Green Thumb" Garden-to-Table Market, for example, kids can do everything from plant toy seeds, grow and harvest the resulting "crops," sell them at the Farmers Market, prepare and serve them at Cafe Kidzu -- and then drop them down a chute to the "compost" pile. "We want it to be fun first, but also a rich learning experience," Maris said. "Everything here is open-ended. The idea is that you can come here over and over again and have a different experience every time."The museum sought the creativity and energy of a dozen area artists, including mural painter Michael Brown, fabric artist Elaine O'Neil, illustrator Pam Pease and others to create or adapt works for various parts of the exhibit. Then Hatz Levinson, the artists and the rest of the Kidzu crew brainstormed ways to make the art interactive. O'Neil, for example, contributed one of her large, whimsical fabric collages -- which had been in a gallery in New York -- depicting farmyard animals. Rather than simply display it, though, Kidzu also recreated its component parts on felt and erected a background so kids can rearrange the animals and other features as they wish."Kids will have the opportunity to do their own creating," Hatz Levinson said. "They can look at hers, but then they can go, 'Look how I did it.'"The exhibit was funded with $115,000 in private donations and grants. Despite all the effort and energy that have gone into it, it is designed to be temporary, because Kidzu is seeking a much larger permanent home. The town of Chapel Hill is having a feasibility study done on one potential site, on top of the Wallace parking deck on Rosemary Street. Another possible site is a 2.5-acre wooded tract in Carrboro, offered by an anonymous donor.Regardless of where Kidzu eventually winds up, Maris said, the KidZoom exhibit will help it establish a high-quality children's museum once it gets there. Some of the features in the current museum, she said, will be able to be relocated. Others will serve as learning experiences."This is really a pilot exhibit for the new museum," she said. "Everything we learn from this will help us in planning for that. We'll find out what works. We'll learn how to manage the process more efficiently. This is a bridge to the new museum. We hope everyone will join us on this journey."
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2008 The Chapel Hill News