The young scientists intently examine a CAT scan, trying to determine exactly who is buried in the ancient Egyptian tomb -- the longest, deepest and most ornate in the famed Valley of the Kings.
Another group investigates a pile of "cannons" found at the wreck of Captain Kidd's ship, the Cara Merchant, sunk off the coast of the Dominican Republic -- the only pirate shipwreck ever discovered in the Caribbean. A third group works to reconstruct broken life-sized warriors -- like the terra cotta army commissioned by the first emperor of China to guard his tomb, buried more than 2,000 years ago.
Did I mention that these scientists are mostly under the age of 10? Welcome to the new "Treasures of the Earth" exhibition here at the Children's Museum of Indianapolis (www.childrensmuseum.org), launched in partnership with the National Geographic Society and world-renowned archaeologists, at the largest children's museum in the country, which draws well over a million visitors a year to Indy.
The museum emphasizes using real science, history and artifacts to encourage family learning and offers innovative hands-on activities, which by all accounts, works beautifully.
"We're not in the middle of Indiana," declares 12-year-old Rose Gilbert, visiting with her family from Louisville. It's like we've traveled to these places. It's like a kid designed this; it's so perfect. I love it and my little sister loves it and my dad loves it."
"I'm learning as much as the kids," adds Angela Newberry, who was painting the Chinese terra cotta warriors on a computer with her kids.
That's exactly the idea, says Jeffrey Patchen, president and CEO of the sprawling museum, which boasts some 120,000 artifacts in its collection -- one of only three children's museums, in fact, which collects artifacts. "We are the translators of the research for the families," he explains.
Sure the mummy the kids are examining with the CAT scan isn't real, nor are the giant warriors they are assembling or the pile of "underwater" cannons they are climbing over. But the lessons they are learning about archaeology and what we learn about studying past cultures certainly are real -- as are the archaeologists working here who are on hand to answer questions.
It's also important to note that each of these major archaeological sites -- in China, Egypt and the Caribbean -- are still being actively excavated, explains Susan Norton, director of the National Geographic Museum in Washington, D.C. She adds that she hopes visitors here in Indianapolis feel as if they are not only taking an active role in investigating the finds, but also embarking on an international adventure.
What struck me -- besides seeing kids and parents having so much fun learning something new together -- is the number of real artifacts in the museum -- the cup of Pharaoh Seti I (this is his tomb), the cannon from Captain Kidd's Cara Merchant being carefully preserved in liquid and cleaned -- the only cannon brought to the surface from a Caribbean pirate ship, Spanish coins and a Lintel, a beautiful limestone piece dating back to the 13th century where kids can press on a replica of the hieroglyphics for a description of what each drawing means.
There are also the juvenile dinosaurs in the Dinosphere, Barbie's classic outfits in the "Barbie the Fashion Experience," a re-creation of Ryan White's bedroom in "The Power of Children" exhibit and a rare copy of Anne Frank's diary. This powerful exhibit focuses on three children who fought discrimination and prejudice in their own ways, telling the stories of Anne Frank, Ruby Bridges, one of the first African-American children to attend an all-white school in the South in 1960, and Ryan White, who fought to attend school in Kokomo, Ind., after his AIDS diagnosis became public in 1984.
Downstairs, families sit on a rotating couch looking up at "Fireworks of Glass," artist Dale Chihuly's largest permanent installation -- 43 feet tall. Nearby, kids create their own sculptures from glasslike shapes while parents and kids blow virtual glass art on touch-screen computers.
As if the artifacts and hands-on areas (design your own Barbie outfit, dress like a dinosaur and "protect" your nest, "dig" for ancient finds, including a special "wall dig" area for children in wheelchairs) aren't enough to engage kids, there are also professional theatrical performances to interpret the material. We drop in as Miep Gies, the young woman who risked her life to help Anne Frank, her family and several family friends hide from the Nazis during World War II, admonishes them to stay out of sight and to be quiet at all times. The young actress in costume apologizes for not bringing better food and asks, "Could you help a friend, no matter what?"
"This makes what my son learns in school real," observed Heather Wilson, here with her 8-year-old son, Ryan, who makes a beeline for such live performances whenever he visits. "This is more fun than other museums," he declares.
Hopefully, parents will get as much out of a visit as their children, Jeffrey Patchen says. You'll see fewer computer stations and more opportunities to share an experience -- whether designing Barbie clothes or deciphering the meaning of the symbols drawn on the wall of the Egyptian tomb. "We're going to educate entire families about what the world was like in the 17th century and what that tells us about life today," said Charles Becker, the underwater archaeologist whose Indiana University team found the Cara Merchant. He is collaborating with the museum on this exhibit.
Sadly, museums have just one minute and 45 seconds to engage young kids' attention, explained Dr. Barbara Wolf, who oversees family learning at the museum and who researches what works and what doesn't.
Kids stay interested longer and learn more when parents get involved. "Parents need to realize they play an integral role in making the experience all it can be," Wolf said.
But that doesn't mean rushing from exhibit to exhibit -- even at a children's museum. "Choose two or three things that really engage your children," suggested Wolf. "And then relax. You don't need to see it all."