THE NEW exhibit at the Children's Museum of Richmond, "Adventures With Lewis & Clark," is one of what must surely be hundreds commemorating the bicentennial of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark's historic cross-country trek -- but it's the only one that invites museum visitors to ride wooden horses around the room.
"Technically we are not a history museum," says Children's Museum Executive Director Nan Miller. "But we believe the exhibit makes adventure and discovery come alive for children." The show, she says, encourages kids to "interact and understand" rather than "looking passively."
The entrance to the museum's Grandis Gallery, where the small exhibit is housed, is decorated to resemble Thomas Jefferson's front hall at Monticello, complete with curtains, carpeting and columns. Wooden cutouts of adults and children in 19th-century garb flank the door, and holes where the faces would be allow visitors to pop their heads through for a little preparatory role-playing. The gilt-framed artwork on the walls -- a portrait of Jefferson and a circa-1795 map of the United States with the left side almost entirely blank -- suggests the impetus for the historic expedition.
Passing through this short stretch of interior space and farther into the exhibition creates a sense of having left the indoors behind. The show is set up like a room-size board game, with visitors as the game pieces. A narrow green pathway scattered with brightly colored circles winds through the exhibit; a basket near the entrance holds wooden "compasses" whose needles can be spun to land on one of the colors. Players may then advance to the circle of the corresponding color. Each circle relates an achievement -- or mishap -- experienced by the expedition. "Find a river that looks like tea with milk -- call it 'Milk River,' " reads one.
The route is lined with hands-on activities, like the Sioux tepee replica, into which inquisitive kids are invited to climb. Lumpy bags inside marked "buttons" and "tobacco" represent the goods that Lewis and Clark brought with them for trading. A toy dog portraying Seaman, the shaggy Newfoundland that traveled with the expedition, moves through the exhibit in the hands of little visitors, never in the same place for long. Near the middle of the game board's winding course -- the expedition does finally reach the Pacific, no thanks to the fabled Northwest Passage -- kids can try their hands at building "Fort Clatsop" using what look like giant Lincoln Logs made from real tree branches (but small and light enough for children to lift and stack). Like any respectable set of Lincoln Logs, these come with the requisite roof pieces.
The exhibit's activities are low-tech but effective. For example, the explorers encountered many unfamiliar plants and animals on their trek. Visitors who want to approximate the experience of seeing an unknown creature can put their hands into holes in a box labeled "What Am I?" and try to identify models of various animals by touch. A do-it-yourself "journal" invites children to hang cards depicting a variety of incidents -- "We saw a huge grizzly bear," "We were in the Bitterroot Mountains" -- on pegs under the headings "yesterday" and "today." A nearby display provides a chalkboard where kids can try their hand at drawing Native American symbols -- like the ones for "bear alive" and "bear dead." One particularly successful activity, "Animal Tracks," allows visitors to press a rubber stamp onto a wet sponge, then make watery animal tracks on a flagstone. An accompanying chart matches print to animal.
As you might expect in an exhibit for children, there is not a lot of wall text accompanying "Adventures With Lewis & Clark." This is good news for kids, but it may be bad news for parents, depending on their skill at providing extemporaneous answers to their children's questions. (Anyone who's ever followed along behind a parent with young children at a museum knows how treacherous this can be.) Visitors of all ages will get more out of the show if they know the basic outline of the story ahead of time. And volunteer docents and museum educators are always on hand to provide historical context and explain how the interactive displays work. (Who was Sacagawea, and what's her head doing on the dollar coin?) The show is likely to be experienced at many different levels: It might inspire older kids to go out and learn more about, say, Native American pictographs, while younger ones may view it as a mountain- and forest-themed playroom.
The activities related to the exhibit continue outside. In the museum's large arts and crafts area, "The Artist's Workshop," kids are invited to build canoes with paper plates, paper or egg cartons or make stick puppets of the expeditions' central players, including buffalo that roamed the unmapped territory. Margaret Carlini, the museum's school and gallery programs manager, says it is planning a full schedule of demonstrations and special events connected with the exhibit. Volunteers from the community will demonstrate Native American crafts and storytelling, and the local Newfoundland Club will bring an actual Newfoundland -- he answers to Tugboat -- to the museum for visits. A recent workshop on how to make hardtack, the thick, flour-and-water crackers that last four years if stored properly, was a roaring success. And, in a nod to the exhibit's most popular element, the museum will offer daily demonstrations of the art of tepee-building. "Kids love the tepee," Carlini says.
"There's some great make-believe going on in there."
ADVENTURES WITH LEWIS & CLARK -- Through Oct. 31 at the Children's Museum of Richmond, 2626 W. Broad St., Richmond. 877-295-2667. www.c-mor.org. Open Tuesday-Saturday, 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m., Sundays noon-5 p.m. Closed Mondays Labor Day through Memorial Day, with the exceptions of Jan. 20 and 27, Feb. 17, March 10, April 14 and May 26. $6, children under 1 free.
Special events in conjunction with the exhibit:
daily -- animal-tracking and tepee-building demonstrations, craft projects (bead-making, rug-weaving and the like) and readings from books about the expedition.
Saturday and Sunday only -- Hardtack-baking demonstrations.
March 8 and 22, from 1 to 2:30 -- Workshops on building bull boats (the round, flat-bottomed animal hide boats used for navigating shallow water).
March 9, April 13 and May 25 from 10 a.m. to noon -- "Meet Lewis and Clark's Newfoundland Dog 'Seaman' " with Christy Smith and Tugboat.
April 1 from 10 a.m. to noon -- Native American storytelling with Mama Brenda Aquila.
April 11 from 10:30 a.m. to noon -- "Inventions on the Lewis & Clark Trail" with Imagineer Marshall Johnson.
Demonstrations on blacksmithing and 19th-century clothing as well as an interactive drama from the Richmond Theatre Company for Children are in the works.
The Children's Room staff at the Arlington County Central Library recommends the following books about Lewis and Clark for readers ages 9-12:
"On the Trail of Lewis and Clark: A Journey Up the Missouri River," by Peter Lourie (Boyds Mills Press, 2002).
"How We Crossed the West: The Adventures of Lewis and Clark," by Rosalyn Schanzer (National Geographic, 2002).
"Animals on the Trail With Lewis and Clark," by Dorothy Hinshaw Patent (Clarion Books, 2002).
"Lewis and Clark: Explorers of the Lousiana Purchase," by Richard Kozar (Chelsea House Publications, 2000).
"Sacagawea," by Judith St. George (Philomel Books, 1997).
"Lewis and Clark (In Their Own Words)," by George Sullivan (Scholastic Reference, 2002).
"Cooking on the Lewis and Clark Expedition," by Mary Gunderson (Capstone Press, 1999).