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IT TAKES A BIG VILLAGE
Children's Museum drew inspiration from many

New Haven Register
Fran Fried, Register Entertainment Editor
01/12/2001

NEW HAVEN - The street sign at the corner of College and Wall streets said "Kids Place," but to the casual observer, there wasn't much to indicate why the corner had such a name.

That's about to change.
What had been the Connecticut Children's Museum, a city insitution for more than two decades, closed to the public five years ago to accommodate a school program. In 1999, Creating Kids day-care center was given that building on the corner by the museum's former director and with the help of a vast village of people - parents, children, architects, artists, corporations, politicians and a publisher - will reopen the doors to a vastly different kids' place Saturday afternoon. "My goal was to make a very unique, innovative and inclusive place for kids, and that it be deeply rooted in the community," museum director Sandy Malmquist said last week, taking time from the usual last-minute rush that precedes an opening. As she talked, muralists continued decorating walls with clever and unique paintings - a mixture of professional and children's art - and building materials and displays were still scattered all over.

Clearly, this wasn't a matter of splashing on a coat of paint and opening the doors. The museum was totally re-thought and renovated.

In all, $300,000 of work is being done with the help of loans, corporate and grant money and two architects who offered their services for very little. What kids and parents will see Saturday is a multi-colored, multi-faceted, multi-sensory - not to mention unique - learning and playing experience.

Go into one room and play with an 8-foot-long dollhouse, each room decorated as a slice of New Haven life. Go into another and not only hear music, but see it. Go to another and find yourself in a colorful, kinetic, pop-up book come to life _ a room where you can leave a lingering shadow against a phosphorescent wall. Go to a pay phone and learn about one of New Haven's Sister Cities. Go to another room and literally find yourself inside a book.

All the rooms are accessible to the blind and disabled, built to code, with factoids and reading materials in English, Spanish and Braille. In the Musical Room, percussive rain sticks are transparent so deaf visitors can see the sounds being made.

Throughout the museum, magnetic walls will allow kids to create sentences and make bees fly. Professionally rendered murals of pastoral settings will include crudely drawn birds, bugs, other animals and buildings. The 12 muralists replicated drawings by kids from around the city _ right down to the marker strokes used to fill in the red body of the cardinal.

"It's beautiful, isn't it?" June Levy asked.

Levy, of Hamden, was the museum's original director; she started it in a bus in 1973. Three years later, with the assistance then-Mayor Frank Logue and his assistant, Rosa DeLauro, the museum moved into a former electrical shop on State Street. When the city planned to demolish the building to widen the street in the late 1980s, it gave Levy the building at College and Wall.

Levy contracted with the board to open a magnet school, the Museum School, in 1995, and by the next year, the museum was only open to special groups. (The school now operates out of the West Hills Magnet School.) In 1999, Creating Kids was looking to expand from the space it leased on Audubon Street, and Malmquist approached Levy about how she obtained a building from the city. Levy, who was planning to retire, told her Creating Kids could have the building if it reopened the museum.

"When someone gives you a building like this ... Our board took it on as part of our mission," Malmquist said of the structure, which is now called the Children's Building. "It's a museum, a child-care center, a training center for early child care through the Board of Education's School Readiness Initiative. It's home of the Creating Readers program," created with a grant from the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven.

In its third and previous incarnation, from 1991 to 1996, the museum was designed as a small town, each room depicting such everyday places as a grocery story and a post office. This time around, under Malmquist, the museum takes its framework from Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences, that people learn in numerous ways.

The rooms (with metal cutout signs created by New Haven sculptor Gar Waterman) are each tied to one of the intelligences: naturalist, intrapersonal, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, logical-mathematical, spatial, and linguistic. Within that framework, dozens of people fleshed out the museum.

"I find it particularly interesting," said Sigal Barsade, board chairman of Creating Kids. "My day job is professor at the Yale School of Management, a professor of organizational behavior.

Watching this project come together with the time and resources we have, it's really just inspiring to watch how this came together.

It's a tremendous endeavour. It's one of the most exciting projects I've ever worked on."

Kids, as mentioned, contributed drawings for the murals. Meanwhile, Creating Kids held a series of "inspirational meetings" last year.

"We talked with parents, early-childhood educators, artists and politicians," Malmquist explained. "Six-hundred people were invited to come and inspire the museum. We had six meetings and had 30 to 40 people every time. We had a huge reservoir of ideas. Other people turned these into room ideas. We gave these to Peggy and said, 'Do something with this.'

"Peggy" is architect Peggy Rubens-Duhl of Svigals Associates, who put a child through Creating Kids' day care.

"When we needed an architect, I talked to Peggy," said Malmquist. "She understands children. She and Barry Svigals gave (their services) to us for very little money."

Some of the little twists _ bits of education and whimsy _ include the Logical-Mathematical Room. The gear wall allows kids to arrange gears in a number of configurations. The maze wall has movable slats. Meanwhile, prospective bean counters don green visors and add and subtract objects at a table shaped like ... a kidney bean. In the Musical Room, youngsters can access, by ramp or step, a stage that incorporates the shape of a guitar.

The most striking room, though, might be the Great Green Room. Technically, it's called the Linguistic Room, but it has been renovated to exactly replicate the Great Green Room in Margaret White Brown and Clement Hurd's classic 1947 children's book, "Goodnight Moon" _ right down to the 1920s-vintage phone and the paintings on the wall.

"The night of the linguistic inspirational meeting, somebody walked into the room and said, 'This looks like the fireplace in the Great Green Room in 'Goodnight Moon,'" Malmquist explained. "We wrote to HarperCollins (the publisher) to get permission to do it. They said we could if we would exactly replicate the room. The muralists took the book home with them. We also have the (magnetic) words to 'Goodnight Moon' in English, Spanish and Braille. There are 54 different words and kids can arrange them to tell the story."

The public will let Creating Kids know soon enough whether the museum is a success. But Levy gave it a thumbs-up ahead of time.

"My definition of a museum was a place for learning and growing. In the Oxford English Dictionary, one of the definitions of a museum is a place for learning and growing," she said. "Sandy's carrying it out to the ultimate."

İNew Haven Register 2005