THE DAR's new Discovery Hall is a pleasant spot where youngsters can slip back for a while into the 18th and 19th centuries, playing with toys their ancestors enjoyed and contemplating childhood lived at a slower pace.
Not every modern child nurtured on television, computers and electronic gadgets will find Discovery Hall interesting. But those who can put their rowdiness on hold, those who are fascinated by colonial life, those with the patience to listen politely to the docent who guides them through the labyrinth of the museum -- they can savor an hour or so with yesterday's wares.
Perhaps equally important, Discovery Hall is a small step forward for the Daughters of the American Revolution, the first time that they have created a space just for children, on the third floor of their formidable library and museum at 1776 D Street NW.
The display is meant for children from four to 13, according to associate curator Suzanne Dawson, but we decided that many younger children might be too rough with the antiques -- the pages of the "New England Primer," for example, were already crumbling, and the reed-like stem of the meerschaum pipe seemed too fragile to survive. Dawson assured us that none of the objects are so valuable that children cannot relax with them. Many are reproductions from Williamsburg craft shops, she said, and can be replaced if necessary.
Mind you, the carpeted ramp and shelves that hold touch-it toys and other colonial paraphernalia can't compete with the Capital Children's Museum, for example, or with certain areas of the Smithsonian. It isn't set up for hordes of youngsters -- only a few, playing quietly, under the eye of docent or parents.
Still, if yours is a child who is entranced by Williamsburg, Mount Vernon and other colonial sites, who enjoyed the CBS "George Washington" miniseries last year, reads the "Little House on the Prairie" books or finds a fife-and-drum corps thrilling, you've got one who might enjoy the DAR's offering.
The Discovery display is called "A Touch of Independence." All the toys, plus the twist of tobacco, the carved whistle, the powder horn and other objects of colonial life, are meant to be fingered. Some are found on shelves, others in painted square boxes along with hand-lettered cards that describe the items and how they were used. The "Life of a Revolutionary Soldier" box contains a powder horn, whistle, the meerschaum pipe, tobacco and a flask-like water canteen. Another box, "Early American Toys," holds a homemade doll made of soft fabric, a store-bought doll with a painted wood head and more elaborate clothing, a top and small wooden games, dominos and a puzzle. "Drinking Vessels" presents a cup and saucer, a stoneware mug, a pewter cup, a wine glass and a soldier's cup made of horn.
Last week, one small girl visitor prowled the shelves and discovered with delight an embroidered American flag, as well as the tiny "New England Primer" with crumbling pages, candleholders with devices to raise and lower the candle, a fuzzy lamb pull-toy and a small rocking horse. Resting in a cradle was a colonial doll, with hinged knees and wooden head.
The docent explained that the pierced-tin lantern on one shelf may be the type that Paul Revere placed in the Boston tower to signal "one if by land, two if by sea," She showed us a soldier's wooden holder for ammunition shells. The Small Visitor was fascinated by the display of little girls' dresses and shoes -- although they were behind glass -- and a turn- of-the-century picture of a class of little girls all learning at once how to thread a needle.
Our guide, guessing what might enthrall a girl, took us across the hall to the DAR's large collection of 18th- dolls, miniature and child-size furniture, carriages, games, tea sets, puzzles, mechanical banks, rocking horse and more. Dawson called this "perhaps the best-loved room" in the museum. But the toy collection was not a hands- on exhibit, so this time the Small Visitor hung longingly over the rail and peered into glass cases.
She gazed at dozens of dolls, both American- made and European -- dolls with leather or fabric fingers and toes, dolls with bisque or china or wooden faces, dolls that rested in cradles and rode rocking horses and sat in chairs or at tables. The collection includes a much-loved worn old toy bear, two replicas of American Indians, a black doll and that rarest of all -- a daddy doll, dressed in a suit and seated at the head of the table.
There were doll carriages and real baby carriages, some three-wheeled, and a hooded cart that could be pulled by a dog or goat. Our docent said that the pieces of child-size furniture were samples carried by salesmen who gave them to the kids after the adults had placed an order.
If it seems that the displays for children lean heavily toward the distaff side, you're right. As our docent said with a smile, "This is a building designed for women by women." And after all, it is the Daughters of the American Revolution.
For the Daughters, of course, history is the raison d'etre. So we strolled past some of the 30 "period rooms," furnished by DAR chapters to illustrate a given time. We stopped by a room donated by Wisconsin chapters to represent the 17th century (unusual, the docent noted, since Wisconsin was not then a state) and the New Jersey room (the first colony to call itself a state, our docent said) with English reproduction furnishings made from the blackened oak hull of the HMS Augusta, sunk by the colonists and submerged more than a hundred years.
Descending the staircase, we found ourselves on the balcony level of the Beaux Arts- style Memorial Continental Hall, full of tables where Americans can sit to trace their lineage from the DAR's library holdings. Above the tables are the crests of the 13 colonial states and the flags of all 50.
Finally, we arrived again at the main-floor level and headed for the current gallery display: musical instruments. Having just left the hands-on children's exhibit, Small Visitor was tempted to try out the harp, the cello, the harpsichords and pianos, but restrained her itching fingers and turned her attention to the dolls for sale in the museum gift shop.
If, after your visit to the DAR, your child feels a need to stretch his or her wings, remember that only steps away, across 17th Street, is the Ellipse, an expanse of grass where a child can run and play. Our forefathers would have understood. DISCOVERY HALL -- DAR Museum, 1776 D Street NW. 628-1776. Open 9 to 4 weekdays, 1 to 5 Sunday. Closed Saturday. Free.