I don't recall the first time I visited New York's Rochester Museum and Science Center as a child in the 1950s, but family and school excursions were frequent enough over the years to leave a lasting impression of the place.
I remember the long hallways with their glass displays of Indian and pioneer artifacts, the diorama of Iroquois longhouses, a dark, musty log cabin one could peer into through a window – as if spying on the man hanging furs and the woman at the fire – and, of course, behind plates of glass, reconstructed natural habitats with stuffed deer, beavers, reptiles, and waterfowl.
Overall, a deep quiet prevailed that was only occasionally broken, perhaps by a docent's lecture on Indian baskets and moccasins, or a question-and-answer session about the construction of the Erie Canal.
There was nothing playful and very little touchable about the place, whose themes focused on history, anthropology, and natural science.
One display horrified me, and so, of course, was a must-see on each visit. It depicted a tooth extraction in a 19th-century dentist's office. I won't go into graphic detail about the postures of the lifelike mannequins; suffice it to say the dentist was working hard and the patient was more kinetic looking than in most other exhibits.
Museum visits, though clearly "learning experiences," were always a welcome change of routine from sitting in a classroom. I came to feel curiously at home amid the familiar displays – even the growling stuffed predators began to feel like family after rainy day visits to the museum with my brother and sister.
I knew better than to expect a similar experience when I introduced my grandson to the WonderLab Museum – a hands-on, noise-friendly playroom of a museum in Bloomington, Ind.. Here, kids can investigate light, color, electricity, magnetism, gravity, viscosity, and kinetic energy, and dabble in geology and archeology with no ponderous expectations that they'll absorb knowledge. Learning just happens as small hands push buttons, work dials, shape minitornadoes, dig for fossils and artifacts in a sand pit, blow bubbles, and splash about with long, rubber aprons at the waterworks.
The one time I got wet at the Rochester Museum and Science Center – a transgression involving the yard sprinklers after a two-hour class visit – I and my fellow miscreants were thoroughly disgraced. Play on those sacred grounds? What were we thinking?
I am all for learning in child-oriented museum settings – I can almost see the wee mental wheels turning as 3-year-old Connor works the rope and pulley to raise a toy parachutist to WonderLab's ceiling – and then releases it for a floating descent.
The other day, as he and other children freely zipped from activity to activity, it struck me that no one paused at my favorite display – a terrarium with a quiet, motionless lizard basking in the warmth of a heat lamp.
Though very much alive, it is the nearest thing the WonderLab offers to the kind of static museum display I had been raised on, which perhaps explains its attraction for me. And so as Connor bustles about on our visits, thoroughly amused and stimulated, I occasionally take the time to gaze at the lizard – and think fondly back to the still-life beaver lodge, Indian village, trading post interior, and even the dentist's office reconstructed in the Rochester Museum and Science Center.
I hear that it has changed and become more interactive in recent years, in keeping with trends. Yet it taught me quite a bit as I remember it – not least of which was how to stand quietly and lose myself in a scene.