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Arts & Entertainment

Artists prepare works for opening of the expanded Children's Museum

| Sunday, Oct. 31, 2004

Standing outside of the Old Post Office Building on the North Side -- home of the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh for the past 21 years -- Pittsburgh sculptor Keny Marshall's eyes widen with excitement as he describes his latest piece, "Allegheny Waterworks."

"It's a fountain, but the kids will control all of the flow by turning the water on and off with a big wheel," Marshall says. His interactive work consists of a massive polypropylene water tank out of which dozens of pipes lead to stacks of architectural artifacts from Pittsburgh's past.

Previous visitors to the museum might remember some of those artifacts from when they were stored in the very same area. The Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation kept them there before deeding the 20,000-square-foot building -- an Italian Renaissance design dating to 1897, listed with the National Registry of Historic Places -- to the museum in 1991.

While some of the artifacts have made their way into Marshall's sculpture, even more have made their way into the gabion wall that now defines an area around the north and west perimeter of the old post office that has been dubbed "The Backyard" by the museum's staff.

The Backyard also contains Pittsburgh artist Steven Eisenhauer's "Animated Earth," another newly installed interactive art piece in which kids can control the amount of compressed air that moves through tubs of bubbling mud. It also contains a very familiar artwork, "Poodle Sphinx," a 25-foot-tall sculpture of a pink poodle by Laure Drogoul of Baltimore. Nicknamed "King Pup," it dominated the museum's rotunda since it was installed there in November 2000.

The dog was put out in the yard, so to speak, a while ago to make way for a massive expansion of the museum that combines the existing 40,000-square-foot Buhl Planetarium building, which has been vacant since 1991, with the Old Post Office via a new three-story structure designed by Koning Eizenberg Architects of Santa Monica, Calif. The addition brings the new museum to a sum total of more than 80,000 square feet.

Now, the $28 million project is nearly complete and a full-time staff of artists and designers, like Marshall, are hurriedly readying their artworks and other exhibition components for the museum's opening, which is slated for Saturday .

"We've spent the last three years designing exhibits for this," Marshall says, referring to himself and the 20 or so artists who have been collaborating on exhibits for the newly expanded museum. The project dedicated $500,000 to the creation of interactive artwork.

Exhibits include:

  • A giant inflatable brontosaurus made from vinyl ice cream signs by Pittsburgh artist Tim Kaulen.

  • An interactive video work called "Text Rain" by New York artists Camille Utterback and Romy Achituv in which visitors will be able to "catch" virtual falling letters and form words.

  • And a "Smelling Machine" by Hyla Willis of Pittsburgh that is designed like an old amusement park machine such as a zoetrope or palm reader, but it doles out smells instead of fortunes.

    In fact, the new-three story structure built between the Old Post Office and the former Buhl Planetarium that will function as both entryway and exhibit space is in itself an artwork, being sheathed in 43,000 square polycarbonate flappers that move with the wind and look like water cascading down the building. Titled "Articulated Cloud," it was designed by Ned Kahn of Sebastopol, Calif.

    "We wanted to be innovative," says Jane Werner, executive director of the Children's Museum. "We didn't want to do the same old thing. And who does innovation best but artists?"

    That spirit of innovation already has garnered the museum a 2004 Promising Practice Award, one of three awarded by the Association of Children's Museums in May of this year. The award was given to the museum not only for the artistic designs but also for the innovative management and programming practices the museum has been implementing for a while now, such as prototyping many of the exhibits that visitors will see at the new museum.

    "You may have seen this," Werner says about a video work station connected to a display of puppets behind Plexiglas. "This was on the floor, we prototyped this and Carnegie Mellon University's Entertainment Technology Center designed this for us."

    Using joysticks and buttons visitors, can manipulate the fragile puppets, part of the museum's collection of more than 700 puppets and masks, using three-dimensional computer models. Two people at a time can pick the puppets, scenery, music and the way the puppets move.

    "That makes our puppets accessible," Werner says.

    Aside from that exhibit and just a few high-tech works such as "Text Rain," most exhibits are hands-on.

    "We wanted to make sure that we used real materials and real processes, and introduce kids to those things," says Penny Lodge, director of the exhibits department. "We didn't want a whole lot of virtual reality and a whole lot of touch screen, and I think that's what we've achieved."

    Hence, kids will be able to get wet in the "Waterplay" area, which is filled with a pond and a 53-foot river; pump imaginary gas into a real car; get dizzy in a "Gravity Room" where everything is set at a 30-degree angle; and direct balls that roll on wire tracks up high in the former planetarium dome.

    And if that's not enough, visitors will find various "Art Machines" throughout the museum that display the collection of puppets and masks, as well as the museum's nearly 400-piece print collection. Designed by Pittsburgh architect Paul Rosenblatt, they are integrated everywhere throughout the museum, distinguishable by a goldfish color. One is even designed to be enjoyed by crawling toddlers -- it's built into a ramped floor in the nursery area -- and displays pieces under glass.

    As one might imagine, the artists and staff are just as excited about the museum's Saturday opening as anyone. Brian Cicco, exhibits manager for the museum and a former producer and exhibit designer for COSI, hands-on science centers in Columbus and Toledo, says he plans to bring his wife and 2-year-old daughter for the opening.

    "This is the third museum that I've opened and I've always done what I do for 'the kids,' in an abstract sense, but this is the first time I've ever done this with my own kid in mind," he says. "It makes it so much more personal. I cannot wait for when I can bring my daughter in here for the first time."

    Additional Information:

    Details

    Grand opening weekend activities

    When: 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday

    Regular hours: Beginning Nov. 8. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays; noon to 5 p.m. Sundays. Closed on major holidays.

    Admission: $8; $7 for ages 2 to 18 and senior citizens; free for those younger than 2

    Parking: $5 in the museum lot. Free parking with a shuttle bus will be offered on Saturday only in the Red 6 lot across from PNC Park on General Robinson Street beginning at 8:45 a.m.

    Where: Children's Museum of Pittsburgh, Allegheny Center, North Side

    Details: (412) 322-5058 or www.pittsburghkids.org

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