In these tricky financial times, when programs in need are counting on corporate America to step forward, there was much rejoicing last night at the Capital Children's Museum. It was celebrating the opening of its $1.5 million "Communication" exhibit with a party sponsored by its largest private donor, International Telephone and Telegraph.

Speaking to nearly 300 guests in a partially darkened reception area -- all the might of the satellite earth station in the parking area outside couldn't bring on the power around the podium -- Rand V. Araskog, president, chairman and chief executive of IT&T, said that "we are extremely proud of what Ann Lewin, director of the museum and her staff are doing with our contribution. This is one of our best ideas, and we are proud to be part of it."

The guests wandered through the two-floor hands-on exhibit, which traces the evolution of communication from Ice Age cave markings to sophisticated electronic equipment, carefully reading the instructions (which only kids seem to understand) marveling at the array of old and new phones, working printing press, the computer game room, the radio sound booth, and the 10 TV cable hookups -- soon to include a hookup from the House floor. This look into the future is housed in a 19th century convent where once the Little Sisters of the Poor lived quietly behind their cloistered walls.

While there was all this to entertain the 40 children who performed in the Young Strings in Action group, and more, Heather Dickson, age 9, said what she liked the best was sending coded messages by (electric) torch. When asked if she had sent her name, she said no, her message was simply, "Help."

White House counselor Ed Meese and Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) popped by for a moment. Health and Human Services Secretary Richard Schweiker and his wife, Claire, Sen. Larry Pressler (R-S.D.), Rep. Jamie Whitten (D-Miss.), museum board member Nancy Thurmond, wife of Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), Chinese Ambassador Chai Zemin and board chairman Esther Coopersmith chatted with members of such corporations as Atari, Scientific Atlanta and Digital Equipment, who had also donated services and equipment.

"The exhibit is fantastic," said William Rumsey, director of the D.C. Department of Recreation. "I'm going to get every child in my program through this exhibit."