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ORANGE COUNTY CHILDREN IN THE ARTS : Big Changes Set for Little Folks at the Museum

January 10, 1988|CATHY CURTIS

Where can your child watch a working beehive, become a model train engineer, climb on a real caboose, ride a merry-go-round and make friends with (stuffed) skunks, bears and beavers? At California's original children's museum in La Habra.

The 3,000-square-foot museum in a former railroad station is 11 years old this year and about to expand.

Bids have gone out for an 8,000-square-foot wing, an addition expected to be in place by early 1989. The new wing will provide room for three more permanent exhibits: a toddlers room, for ages 2 through 4; a physical sciences discovery area along the lines of San Francisco's Exploratorium; and a theater exhibit with costumes, stage and backstage areas and a technical booth. A multipurpose room, increased office space, a classroom, a kitchen, a gift shop and more restrooms to supplant the 1923 building's two toilets are also planned.

"We're hoping to be able to block off the back gallery and stay open," museum director Catherine Michaels said. Construction costs are estimated at $500,000, four-fifths of which has already been raised.

A city museum that enjoys rent-free status, the Children's Museum receives 20% of its $400,000 annual budget from La Habra, the rest from corporate and private donors, memberships and admissions. (With increased staffing--the museum operates with just three full-time and four part-time employees, plus a small army of volunteers--and other costs, the budget is likely to rise another $100,000, Michaels said.)

Volunteers ("they have to be able to handle noise and activity," Michaels said) are trained on one to one and indoctrinated into the museum's philosophy of not lecturing to children but allowing them to learn through experience.

"People like to deal more with tour guides than read labels or use Acoustiguides," Michaels said. "We're still able to provide personal attention. Our volunteers enjoy talking to people."

Annual attendance is nearly 100,000, with 900 schools (some are repeaters) signing up for the five-times-daily tours offered nine months of the year.

"We open up the tours in September," Michaels said. "Usually the available times are booked up in the first month. This year, they were booked within four days."

Children coming to the museum can traipse around an indoor "nature walk" with taxidermied animals in a natural habitat and watch bees store their honey behind protective glass. Another room is devoted to the model train village, with switches and buttons that kids can use to control the trains, gates and whistles.

The next room holds the temporary exhibit, which changes four times yearly. (In May, after "Another Way to Be" closes, and a brief "Children's Arts Festival" goes on view, the museum will offer "The Musical Express," fantasy time for small would-be musicians, orchestra conductors and dancers.)

The last room offers a play space for younger children with a piano, coloring books, a doll house, puppet stage and the old-fashioned carrousel. (Sorry, Dad, only folks shorter than a small wooden sign are allowed to ride.)

Outdoors, the old railroad caboose contains old photos and artifacts from La Habra's early days.

Michaels, who has been on the job for eight years, said the museum has become "more sophisticated, but not too sophisticated. (Children) like their video games, but if things are too slick, they don't want any part of it.

"They don't like huge spaces. They (feel comfortable in) whatever space is like their house or preschool. They can do the whole museum in one hour."

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