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Museums enrich the mind -- and parental sanity

Monday, December 02, 2002

SuperCroc is coming. No, I am not referring to Mayor Tom Murphy's latest plan to balance the 2003 budget. SuperCroc is a prehistoric crocodile, the size of a city bus, whose skeletal cast is being assembled today at The Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

The exhibit will run from Saturday to Jan. 26. Yes, nothing says "the holidays" quite like a 110-million-year-old reptile.

I will, of course, take my little girls to see this monster. Taking kids to museums on even the smallest pretext of educational value is what Pittsburgh parenting is all about. We are blessed with an abundance of museums that are "educational" and "can broaden our children's experiences." By this we mean "places to turn the rug rats loose when it's cold outside."

The Carnegie in Oakland is not No. 1 on this list, as it also must cater to its core audience: chin-stroking adults. But The Carnegie Science Center and the Children's Museum on the North Side, both within walking distance of our house, are essentially indoor playgrounds.

They are not billed this way, of course. Parents want to feel as if they're enriching their children. So when my 3-year-old gets soaked playing with the boats and ping pong balls in the science center's elevated tub, I can tell myself she has come away with a better understanding of, I don't know, hydrodynamics. Yeah. That's it.

(Note to Science Center: You haven't made the plastic smock yet that my kid can't get water under.)

I love these institutions for their highfalutin masking of old-fashioned play. Any place that allows kids to play and invent games on their own terms, without being coached and refereed by adults with whistles, is an oasis of spontaneity in this hyper-regimented age. More than one father with older children has told me that kids don't even know how to choose up sides anymore, having never played any ballgames that weren't organized by adults.

How sad is that?

Anyway, the museums that want to attract families are working on two levels. They give the kids something that will make them want to come back. They give the adults plausible deniability in case someone accuses them of just killing time.

Hence "Grossology: The Impolite Science of the Human Body," an exhibit that will be at the science center through March 23. Here we learn that though the mind is a terrible thing to waste, waste is not a terrible thing to mind. Highlights include "Gas Attack," the "Urine Game" and "Y U Stink." Along the way, the kid in all of us can learn that he swallows about a quart of his own snot every day.

Top that, Kermit.

National Geographic, which is bringing SuperCroc to The Carnegie Museum of Natural History, is relatively timid in comparison. But it is clearly targeting children who have learned more about dinosaurs from "Jurassic Park" than from books. The tagline for this "SuperCroc" exhibit is:

"It Didn't Walk With Dinosaurs . . . It Ate Them!"

That beats an announcement that the bones of a Sarcosuchus Imperator have just arrived.

As I say, I am not against any of this. I have even come to enjoy the little obstacle courses these museums and The National Aviary have given parents. I am speaking, of course, of those gift shops near the entrances. They have allowed me to become a master of diversionary tactics, and I've also strengthened my quadriceps through many a short sprint pushing a double stroller.

Though some may long for the old days when these institutions were more obviously about science and less about marketing, I am happy to keep calling them museums. There may come a time when such free-form play is found only in museums.

Brian O'Neill can be reached at 412-263-1947 orboneill@post-gazette.com .

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