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Big, Fun and Cool Exhibits Pictured for Kids' Museum

Education: The facility, to be built in Hansen Dam Recreation Area, aims to actively involve children in learning about the natural world.


Once-fuzzy concepts for exhibits at the city's new Children's Museum have been nailed down to the last high-tech detail and are ready to be built.

New York-based designer Edwin Schlossberg unveiled his ideas late last year for exhibits for the $20-million, energy-efficient structure to be built in the Hansen Dam Recreation Area in the northeast San Fernando Valley.

Museum Director Candace Barrett admitted that the proposed exhibits were difficult to visualize.

Until the museum is built and full of visitors, she said, "It's hard to get a sense of it."

"People think it's going to be an amusement park," said Marketing Director Jennifer Gordon, who often describes the project to community groups. "They think it's the next Six Flags, but I explain, 'No, it's an educational institution.' "

The exhibits were modeled after an ecosystem, Schlossberg said, and at the center of the museum ecosystem will stand three "life nodes," called Tree, Dogbear and Puppycub.

Expected to cost $13 million, the exhibits will be "a dynamic, interdependent system that children power, change and keep running," planners said.

Schlossberg's descriptions begin to make perfect sense when one sees the drawings and specifications included in two large books of plans that he and his colleagues have produced.

Connecting the entire museum will be something that Schloss- berg, 56, calls the Big Fun Cool Thing, a transport system that runs overhead, much like the moving rack at a dry cleaner's.

Children will explore aspects of the natural world, including earth, air, wind and fire--basic themes of the museum.

Tubes built into the Big Fun Cool Thing will carry water and air throughout the building, as well as lights, or fire.

The Big Fun Cool Thing also will move children's artwork around for everyone to see and will carry electronic messages.

Depending on what's happening that day at the museum, the message might be: "There are nine children here today with purple eyes," according to the plan.

In the center of the museum, a waterfall will tumble 17 feet, with waterwheels at the bottom that children can manipulate.

Children are an essential part of the museum. Designers said, "The system needs children to operate it in order to run."

Sketches reveal Dogbear to be a 10-foot-long hollow, mechanized animal, covered with knotted ropes instead of fur, so children can climb on it. Soft material surrounds it in case they fall.

Visitors can get inside its head, and there is wheelchair access through its middle.

Interactive Displays

Interactivity is a Schlossberg specialty, Barrett and others said, and he seems to relish giving children the opportunity to observe cause and effect.

Pet Dogbear and it wags its tail. Once inside, children can look out and see the world through a dog's eyes. Its ears are full of auditory sensors and devices. Children use bellows to simulate its breathing and a suction hose to make it drink. Dogbear is the ostensible parent of nearby Puppycub.

Puppycub "eats" colored balls representing food that children prepare for it in the museum's kitchen area. Then, to the predictable delight of young visitors, the balls come out the back end of Puppycub and fall through a pile of newspapers spread under it.

Schlossberg studied with futurist R. Buckminster Fuller and designed the exhibits for the Brooklyn Children's Museum and the Immigration History Center at Ellis Island. He and his staff have been working on the Los Angeles project for more than a year.

Refinements are inevitable during the design process, and the staff worked extensively with prototypes because, he said, "it's much more difficult to fix an exhibit once it's built."

Working with prototypes allows designers to discover just how an exhibit will play.

Sometimes you think some device or design would be really cool, but when you try it, Schlossberg said, you discover "it would physically work, but it wouldn't be fun to do."

The designers have created icons to explain how the exhibits work. "Almost all the instructions are done with images rather than words," Schlossberg said.

This was done in recognition of the extraordinary linguistic variety in Los Angeles, and "because not all the kids are readers," he said.

Just as children have to "feed" Dogbear and Puppycub to keep them healthy, they have to give air, water and other essential elements to Tree, a structure more than 20 feet tall.

When visitors have pumped enough water into Tree and cared for it optimally in other ways, it rewards them with what Schlossberg describes as "a carnival-like moment." Its fruit flashes, its leaves glow bright-green, birds chirp and music plays.

The effects are created using fiber optics, which require little energy and generate little heat. In short, it is a technology that reflects the energy efficiency of the entire museum, Schlossberg said.

Bringing Ideas to Life

A Los Angeles-area firm will likely be chosen to build the exhibits, Schlossberg said. He does not expect the selection to be made until next year.

"We have a target around November to break ground," said Bill Holland, chairman of the building committee for the museum, scheduled to open in 2004.

He said about half of the $33 million needed for the project had been raised.

Barrett thinks children will want to come back to the museum again and again.

She hopes it will function much as the backyards of childhood did. "If you were lucky enough to have a backyard," she said, "every time you went out into it, it was different."

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