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Philadelphia Thinks Big
Museum's New Home Gives Kids Room to Imagine

By Robert DiGiacomo
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Big is a matter of perspective at the Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia.

To the adult eye, the facility's $88 million new home in Memorial Hall, a Beaux-Arts-style granite palace built for the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Fairmount Park, is super-size in every way.

The reborn children's museum, which reopened last month, offers 38,000 square feet of exhibit space, almost four times that of its previous location. The experience is big from the moment you step into the monumental marble-floored Great Hall, which rises 80 feet to the top of a glass-and-steel dome. Just beyond the ticket desk stands a 40-foot-tall reproduction of the Statue of Liberty's arm and torch, fashioned from reclaimed toys, action figures, sports equipment and found objects.

An adjoining glass pavilion houses a circa-1924 carousel with 52 fanciful, hand-carved horses, pigs, cats and rabbits that gleam after a laborious three-year restoration. And everywhere around you, in six exhibit zones, are colorful interactive galleries intended to spark a child's mind through play.

These exhibits include areas that draw upon touchstones of kids' real lives (the supermarket, the doctor's office, the city bus and the family station wagon) and sections that speak to their imaginations, including ones devoted to "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" and a "Flight Fantasy" room, where you can make your own flying machines or hop on a special bike with pedals that send you soaring. In addition, there's a changing rotation of interactive musical performances in the 150-seat playhouse.

To my nephew, Andrew, such grand changes to his favorite museum were filtered through a 3-year-old lens. In his view, for example, the play food in the Please Touch's supermarket seemed enormous, even though the boxes of cereal, etc., were regulation size.

The expanded gift shop proved an instant hit with him and was an excuse to get one souvenir for home and another for his uncles' house. The shop stocks puzzles and books along with the requisite stuffed animals and museum paraphernalia.

Although Andrew didn't meet a part of the new museum he didn't like, he seemed most at home in its more intimate lower level, which contains many of the zones best suited for those younger than 4.

There, the future big brother (a sibling is due in February) spent a good half-hour giving a thorough medical exam and multiple diaper changes to a baby doll in an area sponsored by the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. Later, he had to be persuaded to leave the "Front Step," a mock home with a picket fence, where he used a broom to sweep up and a wheelbarrow and lawn mower to manicure the "lawn."

A Vespa scooter parked nearby allowed Andrew to speed his uncles on a whirlwind trip down a road as big as his imagination (actually, the three of us just sort of perched there and pretended), while at the first floor's "Roadside Attractions" area, he tinkered with a real Toyota Scion's engine, inflated its tires and filled up the tank.

Such is the stuff of this nontraditional museum, which opened in 1976 and bills itself as the first in the nation dedicated to families with children 7 and younger.

The Please Touch spent most of its 32 years in a three-story building on the edge of downtown. The new location neatly ties together two of the city's celebrations of the nation's founding as well as several installments of local history.

Please Touch, launched during the nation's bicentennial celebration, is now housed in the last major surviving building from the Centennial Exhibition. The museum's Statue of Liberty installation, created by local artist Leo Sewell, is a stand-in for the statue's arm and torch, which were displayed at the Centennial to raise money for construction of the monument in New York Harbor.

The reborn facility is part of the city's newly christened Centennial District, which also includes the Philadelphia Zoo and Fairmount Park's Horticultural Hall, constructed for the bicentennial on the site of a building of the same name from the 1876 event. To further mark this history, the museum includes the "Centennial Exploration" section, where adult history buffs can peruse an 1889 model showing the 200 buildings of the Exhibition, while their kids play dress-up in period clothes and marvel at inventions unveiled at the event, including the telephone and that object of antiquity known as the typewriter.

Former Philly kids also can wax nostalgic over the set and props from the iconic local children's TV show "Captain Noah and His Magical Ark," as well as the "Rocket Express" monorail from the toy department at the former John Wanamaker flagship store and a collection of scenes from the Enchanted Colonial Village, a seasonal display from another defunct department store, Lit Brothers.

I especially liked seeing displays of toys, classic and not, treated as objets d'art in glass cases. Barbie and Lite-Brite seemed like keepers, but I think the jury may be out on the ubiquitous Elmo.

Although the museum pays due homage to the past, the Please Touch is very much a place where little ones, and kid-focused activities, rule the proceedings.

Even face-painting, that standard of many a festival and birthday party, is the domain of its junior patrons.

As befitting the Please Touch's expansive new home, Andrew went big with his personal paint job, adding layer upon layer of color to his cheeks before moving on to his next moment of discovery.

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