Monday, November 28, 2011

Children's Hand's-On Museum of Tuscasoosa: Recycling for Maximum Fun

We went to the Children's Hands-On Museum of Tuscaloosa over the break. It's a former early 20th Century downtown department store, with all the lovely spaces that go along with that type, that's been turned into an interactive children's museum. Most of the exhibits take old fixtures from various sources that were due to be thrown away, and recycles them into children's make-believe settings. Early 20th-Century house, bank, pharmacy, barber-shop, one-room schoolhouse, post office, and general-store fixtures let you play your way through a make-believe town. The former pilot's house of an old tugboat lets you navigate the river. A Japanese house that once graced an exhibit who-knows-where (The Birmingham Zoo and Botanical Gardens used to have one; IDK if they still do.) now gives children a glimpse into another culture. Bits and pieces from an old Ford pickup now have a cheerful plywood body that lets children "drive" plastic fruit in old peach baskets to market. There's also a puppet theater, some simple musical instruments and science exhibits, a nature section with aquariums and terrariums, a tiny mid-20th Century planetarium that looks like it was once the pride and joy of a small college, several rooms donated from the local hospital when they remodeled (including full-size reception, doctor's office, and patient's hospital rooms as well as all the outfits and equipment it was safe for children to handle), some spare NASA exhibits from the US Space & Rocket Center up in Huntsville, in addition to a farm, fishpond, gazebo, and Native American village sections.

The place was full of children having the time of their lives, but what impressed me powerfully was that all this fun was made possible by things that had been rescued on the way to the landfill. These beautiful things were all somebody else's idea of obsolete junk. My husband summed it up best. Looking around, he said, "This is the work of a very good artist."

As we left, the ladies at the front desk pointed out the work going on across the street. A building was losing it's plain, boring mid-20th Century Modern facade. As the workers peeled away the layers of bland mortar, a beautiful, intricate Victorian storefront was starting to emerge. It seemed the perfect metaphor for how the museum itself rescued the best of the past for future generations.

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