A replica of a measured-off archaeological dig. Children on their hands and knees sifting dirt to discover objects buried in it. Others carefully brushing dirt particles from their finds. Still others taking their finds to a nearby tent to compare, identify, and log them. Why all this activity?
The answer is simple. These young people are getting a ``hands on'' history lesson. They're trying to ferret out what was on this particular site a long time ago.
This is a daily scene at a recently opened gallery, Mysteries in History, at the Indianapolis Children's Museum. It's a history gallery that is as exciting as it is innovative. Going beyond the usual museum presentations of history as displays of artifacts or reconstructed scenes with their ``how it all looked then'' messages, this gallery seeks to teach viewers how the history jigsaw is put together -- how historians themselves learn about the past.
A series of historical stations makes up the gallery exhibit. And each station, marked by a ``Be a PASTFINDER'' sign, includes a ``now'' and ``then'' section. The ``now'' area provides a present-day method of finding out about the past. The ``then'' section is a historical reconstruction of a scene from Indiana's past, based on the clues of the ``now'' part. Visitors move into these areas by walking through a ``time arch.''
Among the ojects unearthed at the archaeological dig and carefully recorded in the log book inside the tent are shells, jug handles, and beads. The budding historians, who are encouraged to think of themselves as detectives in search of what went on in the past, weigh their conjectures as to what used to be on the site. Certain questions are posted to help them organize their knowledge.
The artifacts uncovered, plus a little logic, suggest this was the site of a trading post. And as the youngsters walk under the time arch to the ``then'' section of this particular station, they find the answer. There, surrounded by tall trees and singing birds, stands a reconstructed French-Indian fur trading post similar to those in northwestern Indiana from 1760 to 1780.
Shelves are stocked with trade goods -- beaver pelts and baskets from the Pianakashaw and Quia Indian tribes, as well as beads, trade silver, and powder horns from the French. A costumed storekeeper explains bartering and is ready to answer any questions the visitors might ask about the dashing French voyagers who traded so successfully with the Indians long before Indiana became a state.
The setting for another station is Grandma's attic. Here children are introduced to one of the most basic tools of the historian -- original documents. Two big trunks contain papers from the past: land deeds, birth, death, and marriage certificates, itemized bills and receipts, old report cards, letters, and diaries. Some of the letters describe the settlers' trips westward to Indiana. One diary, chronicling the building of a log cabin on the frontier, starts with the clearing of the forest in June 1839
and concludes with the joyous entry in October 1841 that a well has been dug just outside the cabin, eliminating a need for the long walk to the creek for water.
Grandma's attic has artifacts as well as papers, all out where children can touch them and examine them. ``These are ordinary objects,'' George Gonis, museum spokesman, says, pointing out that this is another aspect of the gallery's exhibits. ``History is not only dramatic events, or the lives of the rich and famous,'' he explains. ``History is also everyday things that went on in the lives of ordinary people.''
Passing through the time arch to the ``then'' reconstruction for this station, visitors come upon a real log cabin. A woman, dressed as a pioneer, is sitting in the sparsely furnished cabin, writing in her diary. She, too, is ready to answer visitors' questions about her trip west and about her life on the frontier. Just outside the cabin is a well and a garden with corn shocks standing shoulder-high. A black kettle simmers over an outdoor fire and in the replica of a back field sits the covered wagon t hat brought this family to their new home.
Pastfinders are urged on. The next station offers drawings and samples of architectural styles and construction materials and techniques. This knowledge is useful for dating houses and buildings and sometimes entire city blocks. Photographs of street scenes in Indianapolis -- spanning several generations -- are arranged in such a way that they can be read for information.
As visitors walk through the time arch to ``then,'' they come upon a visual delight -- an 1890s street scene. They can identify the time from the clues they have just studied. A trolley wire runs overhead and tracks follow the brick-paved street. The shops that line the sidewalks display the wares of the era. Most of them are open and have shopkeepers to talk to museum visitors.
Danner's Variety Store displays washtubs and wooden clothespins, kerosene lamps, men's shirt collars, and penny candy. The Ladies Emporium displays exquisite gowns, some with matching parasols, a selection of ostrich-plume fans, and bolts of beautiful dress fabrics. There's a printing shop, a toy store, and, next to Lunderlaub's Bakery, a meat and poultry shop. The sound of horses' hoofs advancing and receding on the brick pavement tends to sweep up onto the sidewalks museum visitors strolling in
Interspersed throughout the ``Mysteries in History'' gallery are further aids to ``pastfinding.'' A time line that stretches from 1600 to 2000 helps children and parents organize chronologically what they are learning about Indiana history. A large staging area sets the scene for storytelling, craft and cooking demonstrations, and an occasional performance of early Indiana music. There's a computer station where visitors can find out about other museums and historic sites throughout Indiana -- their hou rs, locations, and specialties.
The gallery's last section deals with oral history, an exhibit where visitors can learn history by asking questions of other people.
A prime learning tool here is a hand-out sheet called ``Share a Memory Form.'' This gives suggestions on topics for interviewing older family members and friends. For young historians who want to conduct interviews on the spot, tables and chairs are provided. A grandmotherly person is on hand at peak hours to provide the memory, either along the lines suggested by the hand-out or in response to a special interest of the interviewer.
On the other side of the oral history time arch are four ``then'' scenes, ones that could logically result from visitors' interviews: a one-room schoolhouse; a 1930s kitchen; an early settlers' cemetery; and the bedroom of a Vietnam veteran. At each scene an oral history tape can be activated, adding a personal reminiscence.
Pastfinders leave the exhibit with more than some new facts about Indiana's history. They are reminded by a sign at the last exhibit that they can take with them wherever they go the clues to history they have discovered in the gallery.
The Indianapolis Children's Museum, the largest of its kind in the world, will celebrate its 60th anniversary in January. Each year, approximately 1.3 million people -- half of them children -- visit the five-story building, which houses eight large exhibit halls. The museum was founded by the late Mary Stewart Carey, who took her cue from the children's museum in Brooklyn. The museum is funded primarily by private contributions.