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RUMMAGING THROUGH GRANDMA'S THINGS : At the Children's Museum, the Turn of the Century Comes Out of the Attic

February 06, 1992|CORINNE FLOCKEN | Corinne Flocken is a free-lance writer who regularly covers Kid Stuff for The Times Orange County Edition.

Children who are separated from grandparents by distance, death or divorce can have a tough time linking the pictures in history books to their family's past. Mom and Dad's prom picture is good for a laugh ("Yeew! Did you really wear your hair like that?"), but it doesn't reveal much about their roots.

The Children's Museum at La Habra has attempted to remedy that with "Grandma's Attic," an interactive exhibit that allows children to sample the life their ancestors may have led around the turn of the century. The display, appropriate for preschoolers and up, continues through March 26.

Subtitled "Orange County: 1890 to 1910," the show focuses on the area's transition from an agrarian to an urban society and is designed to give children a more tangible sense of history than they may get in the classroom, said the museum's curator of education, Carrie Wictor.

"We want children to understand that history isn't just the past; it's our past, it's what we come out of," said Wictor.

"The farther away we get from this time, and the more technologically advanced we become, the farther kids get from really understanding these things."

Wictor has arranged "Grandma's Attic" in six categories relevant to children: school, chores, bed and bath, kitchen, toys and games, and clothes. Each features a number of play opportunities, such as scrunching a straw-filled mattress and "washing" with a galvanized tub and scrub board, as well as a display of antique photographs and memorabilia. Gallery cards tend to be rather terse, so to get the most out of the exhibit, it's best if you can arrange a docent-led tour (available to groups of 10 or more) or tap a gallery aide to answer questions.

But Wictor hopes that if a child is fortunate enough to have a grandparent or great-grandparent living in the area, the older generation will also attend.

"One of our goals (in the show) is to bring families together," said Wictor. "We hope the exhibits will spark some memories from the adults that they can share with the kids."

That was the case one recent weekday morning, when 7-year-old Shawn Lane, his 2 1/2-year-old sister Katie and mother Pam visited the museum with great-grandmother Bernice Foster. At 76, Foster is too young to have lived in the "Grandma's Attic" period but says she recalls stories of the times passed down to her by her own mother. While Shawn gamely tied on a gingham apron, swept the wooden floor and sniffed a variety of dried herbs and spices in the kitchen display, Foster answered questions and described chores she remembered from her childhood.

After making the rounds of the exhibit, Shawn determined that although life in great-grandma's day seemed "interesting," it was "way too much work."

Joshua Kuhn, 5, of Santa Ana was less concerned with the era's workload than he was with the absence of his favorite board game. Dressed in a red flannel shirt and humming the chorus of "Old MacDonald Had a Farm," Joshua set to work "milking" a 3-D corduroy cow and gathering wooden eggs in the chores area. When asked if he would have preferred to live at the turn of the century, he pondered for a minute, then countered, "Did they have 'Flying Pirates?' "

Not surprisingly, next to the egg-gathering exercise (the mounds of loose straw and the cloth chickens are a big hit with preschoolers), the toys and games are receiving most of the attention, said Wictor. Equipped with such playthings as old-fashioned alphabet blocks, hand-carved wooden toys, "button whizzers" and doll furniture, the display demonstrates what Wictor considers a turning point in children's roles in society.

"To me, this is the time when the whole idea that children should have a childhood came about," she noted. "As people moved from rural life into cities, they had a chance to get away from the grueling physical labors of farm life. Later in this period, technology started to come along with things like gas light, electricity and the ability to buy ready-made clothes and food.

"All this meant there was more leisure time for children to enjoy things like toys and games. It redefined the idea of childhood . . . (and) taught us that kids aren't there just to help the family survive. They have their own agenda of playing and learning."

The Children's Museum at La Habra is presenting a series of Saturday art workshops and performances in conjunction with "Grandma's Attic," plus daily drop-in crafts workshops from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily.

Saturday workshops begin at noon, and are included with museum admission. Topics are:

* Feb. 8--Victorian valentine workshop.

* Feb. 29--"Teaford's Raiders," a Wild West stunt show.

* March 7--Laura Ingalls Wilder storytelling by Judith Helton.

* March 14--"Grandma's Feather Bed," hands-on music workshop and performance by John Yeiser and Ken Orsow.

* March 21--Victorian toy-making workshop.

What: "Grandma's Attic" at the Children's Museum at La Habra.

When: Through March 28. Museum hours are Monday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Where: 301 S. Euclid St., La Habra.

Whereabouts: Take the Orange (57) Freeway to Lambert Street, turn right. Turn right on Euclid Street.

Wherewithal: $2.50 to $3.

Where to call: (310) 905-9793.

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