There are no priceless Rembrandts here, no snooty French-speaking patrons and not a single imposing security guard. Annapolis's newest museum is a place where the children stay put, the art travels and the exhibits are all hands-on.
Painted bright blue and decorated with frolicking kittens, the Museum Education on Wheels (MEOW) is reaching out to Annapolis's nine low-income housing developments, opening its doors to youngsters whose parents may lack the time or ability to take them to museums.
Here, the exhibits are all created for hands-on exploration--the chalk, the building blocks, the books and anything else that can teach children a thing or two while letting them feel like they're just having fun.
"It's not your mother's notion of what a museum is anymore. It's where the people are," declared Annapolis Mayor Dean Johnson, accepting a pair of childproof scissors for the museum ribbon-cutting at Eastport Terrace Community Center.
Mobile educational centers like this one by the Chesapeake Children Museum have popped up all over the country in recent years--from New Jersey, where officials in the late 1980s developed a traveling "pride" museum focusing on scientific "firsts" in the state, to the Los Angeles-based "Earthmobile" that cropped up earlier this decade to teach California youngsters about natural habitats.
At a time when many schools curtail costly field trips, educators and housing officials applaud efforts to bring extracurricular educational activities directly to low-income neighborhoods.
Daneesha Green said she had been to a museum just once before her visit to the MEOW bus. But she already knows all about them--from television.
"Yeah," the 6-year-old happily informed, "they have dinosaur bones and lots of people and classes. And there's a soda machine somewhere. I know all this from watching cartoons."
Annapolis's mobile museum was the brainchild of Deborah Wood, a child development specialist and one of the founders of the Chesapeake Children's Museum, a nonprofit facility that promotes hands-on exploration for knowledge. Working with Annapolis's teenage, low-income mothers more than a decade ago, Wood realized the need to provide fun, educational outings for youths who otherwise might not have such opportunities.
The day she organized a field trip to a children's museum in Washington, Wood said, everything clicked. "Children were laughing hysterically at their parents who were crawling through mazes and trying things on," she recalled.
She knew then she wanted to create the same atmosphere in Annapolis. It would be a place where children could learn about shapes and motion, anatomy, math and art--without even realizing they were learning. A place, too, where parents could meet and build informal support networks through their children's activities.
The Chesapeake Children's Museum was born as an interactive center that would inspire children's imaginations and instill a love of learning. But eventually, Wood said, she realized that her facility in the Festival at Riva shopping center wasn't attracting as many low-income children as she hoped.
"It's still pretty inconvenient for them," she said. Wood realized that if she wanted to reach more people, she would have to bring the museum to them.
After one failed attempt to procure corporate funding, the mobile museum received $86,000 from the Annapolis Housing Authority and $1,000 from the Annapolis Rotary. Wood bought a bus and developed a design plan for her mobile museum after watching her friend's toddler crawl around inside, finding all sorts of nooks and crannies in which to play. "It was like building a house," Wood said.
By last weekend, the new digs were mostly ready. Young helpers helped set up "Stuffy," a seven-foot doll with removable organs to teach children anatomy. They stacked books, set out construction paper and feather masquerade masks and opened for business.
Over the next few weeks, Wood said plans calls for the bus to visit every housing project in the city, reaching as many of the 1,500 Annapolis children who live in public housing as possible.
Eventually, Wood expects a routine to take hold so that neighborhood children will know where to find the mobile museum any day of the week.
Then, she said, she hopes to reach out to others, such as family child-care givers who might be looking after too many children to organize an educational event.
"They can't easily put three and four car seats in and go," Wood said.
"Little kids are stuck, and day-care providers are stuck."
Pat Holden Croslan, executive director of the city's housing authority, said she pushed for funding of the mobile museum because she wanted to create learning opportunities that didn't necessarily revolve around traditional lessons, like multiplication tables.
But mostly, she said, she didn't want educational opportunities to be closed to any child in Annapolis simply because their parents didn't have time, money or transportation.
"We want to let them know that there are things within their daily boundaries," she said. "We want to try to introduce the youth to every conceivable thing."
CAPTION: Children try on various face masks inside the traveling museum.
CAPTION: Top, Marvin Johnson Jr., 11, thinks he looks pretty good in one of the museum's masquerade masks. Above, children explore the various exhibits inside the traveling museum. At left, the logo for the museum.