Ginormous

- and so is the fun

Posted: October 12, 2008

'Man, it's humongous."

That was my 8-year-old son's reaction as we pulled up to Memorial Hall. But for anyone fearing loss of intimacy with the Please Touch Museum's move this month from a tiny Center City rowhouse to the granite behemoth in Fairmount Park, behold a recent Saturday-morning scene in the lower level.

At six tiny cribs, each stocked with fresh linens and a newborn doll, a group of toddlers tended their charges with great seriousness. Nearby, 4-year-olds gathered plastic oranges and hot dogs and rang them up on a tiny cash register, while others measured feet and sold shoes.

This is the kind of small-scale, immersing experience the 32-year-old Please Touch is so good at, and - if a first visit observing a new generation of Olivias and Noahs is any indication - has so successfully translated to a larger venue. The old standbys made the move (the SEPTA bus, the vintage Wanamaker monorail) and the improvements are huge. The heart and soul of Please Touch have survived intact and are pulsing with new life.

Parents concerned with easy access to parking and coffee will be pleased. The new venue has amenities the old one labored to fit in or lacked altogether: a large, sophisticated gift shop, birthday rooms, a sunny cafe.

And Memorial Hall's grand scale has allowed for exhibits with a wow factor that would have been physically impossible in the 21st Street location. Noise is, surprisingly, not overwhelming.

Spread out over two floors, the exhibitions are interspersed with vitrines of antique toys for antique parents. One mother I know melted on spotting a Snoopy Sno-Cone Maker familiar from childhood, and I was stupefied to learn that some toymaker had seen a need to memorialize Miss Piggy atop a tiny Muppet stage set from "Pigs in Space."

There's a lot to see, so please join me on a walking tour. Just follow the white rabbit.

LIFTING A NEW LAMP

Whimsy comes naturally to children's museums, but this one has other dimensions. The emotional centerpiece is just inside the main entrance, in the Grand Hall, where a 40-foot-high replica of the Statue of Liberty arm and torch reminds you that Memorial Hall is a remnant of the 1876 Centennial Exposition, which featured the torch from the yet-to-be-assembled monument.

Now wrought by artist Leo Sewell in juvenile flotsam and jetsam (a tin strip of a Dora the Explorer toy, a hockey stick), the arm sits in the fully restored main hall from which all the other spaces are accessible.

GET WET (above)

In the wing to the right of the torch, you hear the splash of water. River Adventures is a vast improvement over the humid, musty water-play area in the old space, but it's lost none of its simplicity. Exhibit designers know that a few rubber duckies and waterwheels are enough to keep a 2-year-old occupied for a full 10 minutes, and they've sweetened the deal for older siblings. "This thing rocks," said my son, in full Army Corps of Engineers mode as he opened and closed the floodgates on a dam-building activity.

Air blowers to dry your children are a smart touch, even if they weren't working the day we visited.

COLONIAL VILLAGE HAS A HOME

Beyond River Adventures, the much-loved but long-peripatetic Colonial Enchanted Village has found a new home. Built in 1962, the three-quarter-life-size display of a colonial village preparing for the holidays has bounced around from place to place for years, and some of it has gone missing. While the new venue makes the village feel somehow less celebratory, divorced as it is from its original Lit Bros. commercial setting, it's comforting to see it being cared for.

TAKE A SPIN

The only new structure that's part of Memorial Hall's rebirth is the (somewhat) glass carousel house encasing the restored, riotously colorful 1924-vintage carousel that once resided a short distance away in Woodside Park. Now it lives a double life, spinning (rather quickly) for children even while it enchants as a stunning piece of period art. Its 52 animals - freshly painted with silver horseshoes and lovely pearlescent detailing - are anything but generic, full of character and even, in the case of cats with fish in their mouths, implied action.

THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS

Alice in Wonderland might be the most stunningly atmospheric inhabitant of the new museum. You start out on a descending ramp near River Adventures, spiraling down around a huge oak tree. It gets darker and darker, past mice and worms and floating playing cards. "Creepy," my 21/2-year-old said, though probably in a good way. Down in the basement (Please Touch calls it the "ground floor") you find a distorted mirror and a tiny room that plays tricks with perspective. You can sit down for tea with the Mad Hatter. A fairy-tale garden seemed less than fully functional, attractive though it was.

FAIRMOUNT PARK, IN MINIATURE

Wander a little farther and you come upon the 1889 20-by-30-foot model of Fairmount Park as it appeared during the Centennial Exposition, its grounds dotted with long-departed buildings. A recorded narrative, alas, is still missing several years after vandals stole the laptop on which it was stored. Some replacement for that component would help complete the experience.

CITY CAPERS, A KID METROPOLIS

A cluster of hands-on experiences in the basement constitute a kind of urban-toddler central. In City Capers, a medical center, shoe store, grocery store and nursery all come with a generous supply of props. One sign of a well-designed experience is when you set your child down, with no direction, and not only does she know what to do, but she does it for 10 solid minutes. This was exactly the sequence of events I observed over and over.

The only sell-out moment for me is the presence of a certain fast-food chain in small-scale replica. Children's museums should be a sanctuary from product placement and other strains of commercialism, but children get a few unfortunate doses of it at the new Please Touch, this being the most blunt.

BELIEVE YOU CAN FLY

Walk up from City Capers and you land in Flight Fantasy, where, from a fairly high perch, you can power a pedal plane and physically interact with a number of flight-related displays. Perhaps the best use of Memorial Hall's verticality happens in one of the tall corner rooms: At Flying Machine, you construct a plane from precut foam shapes - then hook it to a belt, hoist it to the top of a 40-foot-high tower, and watch it fly (or not).

Tired parents cooled their heels and read newspapers in another of these tall corner rooms, the Creativity Room, while children painted, molded clay and stacked blocks.

ON THE ROAD AGAIN

Roadside Attractions brings together the SEPTA bus, cars, and, amid Center City skyscraper replicas, a working elevator disguised as the Mellon Bank Center building. There's also art downtown. In a city park with a play vending cart, Sam Maitin's The Tree of Life has been hung, its colorful splashes echoed on the bottom with strips of plastic children can place themselves.

IT'S A GIFT

The gift shop is especially well-done, a quiet, roomy space in the bright arcade at the front of the building. The book selection is a thoughtful collection of children's classics and texts relating to history. The toys lean to the educational, art supplies and, most cunning, the hands-on spirit of the museum. If you had trouble pulling your child away from the cash register in the mock supermarket, for instance, you can demonstrate for her real commerce in action and buy the exact model on your way out. $42, plus tax.

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