Playground Themes and Childhood Dreams, Revisited

This weekend, I set out to explore the area around the Virginia Square Metro station and see something in the neighborhood other than the George Mason University Law Library, where I spent many long hours last summer writing case briefs, learning new words, and fighting with photocopiers.

I visited Arlington Arts Center, a historic site that now houses art gallery space and classrooms. While walking through the building, I learned about the Chronoecologists, who set out to artificially simulate experiences like sunsets, sea breezes, and the sound of the ocean and, through time travel, take these simulations to future times when humans will have destroyed the environment and its beautiful natural phenomena. (I don’t think my explanation does the concept justice. I am not sure I understand it fully.)

In other galleries, I saw amazing photograms of mushrooms; Tiffany windows that were once part of Arlington National Cemetery; and a book of photos that each had one cute dog and one naked woman, which, admittedly, I also didn’t really understand.

Spielschiff, outside Arlington Arts Center

Spielschiff, outside Arlington Arts Center

The foyer of the building is currently filled with the work of Phillip Adams: black and white drawings of mountains featuring one or a few full-color additions like a flagpole, a Ferris wheel, and playground equipment. In front of one large sketch is an actual bright red swing (and a sign advising visitors not to sit in it). In other words, it is an example of playground equipment in a work of art.

Outside, there is a permanent piece of artwork that is also a playground for children – Spielschiff (or “Play Ship”) by Bonifatius Stirnburg. The “interactive play sculpture” is a ship-themed piece of climbing equipment with a ladder and crow’s nest among its parts. It is yet another example of the themed playgrounds topic that I recently explored.

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Playground Themes and Childhood Dreams

In working toward my goal of visiting, and exploring the area surrounding, every Metro station in the WMATA system, I’ve done some research on what interesting things can be found in each neighborhood. (I’m convinced there’s at least something interesting everywhere.) When I looked at online maps of Marvin Gaye Park Trail near the Capitol Heights Metro, I learned that I could expect a trail running mostly along Watts Branch (a tributary stream from the Anacostia River), a few visual art pieces in tribute to the musical artist who hailed from that part of DC, and a series of small playgrounds for little ones to enjoy.

Frog-shaped climbing structure at a playground along the Marvin Gaye Park Trail

Frog-shaped climbing structure at a playground along the Marvin Gaye Park Trail

I had not known, until I actually walked the trail, that a few of these playgrounds would be nature-themed, using adorable play equipment from the company GameTime’s PlayTrails line of products. In the playgrounds I saw, the shorter pieces of climbing equipment are a frog and a butterfly, the taller climbers and poles are evergreen trees and cattails, and the seats are leaves and mushrooms. Each playground includes a sign containing natural history facts and suggested play activities that combine movement with conceptualizing individual parts of nature.

A little further along the trail (in the direction away from the Capitol Heights Metro) is Planters Grove, an homage to the peanut (and its sponsor, Planters Nuts, owned by Kraft Foods). Here, the column-surrounded park itself, a planter, and a bench are peanut-shaped.

A person hiking the Marvin Gaye Park Trail could pack a lunch and eat a salad of lettuce and spinach leaves while sitting on a leaf, some mushrooms while sitting on a mushroom, and a peanut butter sandwich while sitting on a peanut.

Playgrounds can be found everywhere, and for good reason, but I’m especially enchanted by tot lots and play areas with themed equipment that reinforces the content area of a surrounding park or museum. For other examples, the National Zoo has play structures that allow kids to crawl through tunnels like a prairie dog, and the College Park Aviation Museum has an airplane-themed playground outside the building.

An Internet search for images of quirky or unique playgrounds yields pictures of anthropomorphized trees, tilted houses, giant spiders and small dinosaurs, fruits and vegetables, ships and lighthouses, and lots of bright colors. Unsurprisingly, there are Pinterest boards devoted to the topic.

This is not to say that a more standard playground can’t lend itself to the limitless bounds of children’s imaginations. (In my preschool teaching days, I once saw some three- and four-year-olds use the school playground for an elaborate scheme that combined the Passover story with kittens). However, a natural or cultural site with a specific content area can make its subject relevant to its younger visitors by themed play opportunities, such as toys inside the building and playgrounds outdoors.

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Don’t Rush to Oppose a Women’s History Museum

Just before Mother’s Day, the United States House of Representatives overwhelmingly voted in favor of a feasibility study on the prospect of a privately-funded women’s history museum on or near the National Mall. To be sure, support for the bill was both wide and bipartisan. Yet a few vocal critics have made the news with comments that make me want to sit the naysayers down and explain to them what a museum is.

Talk show host and, apparently, self-described satirist Rush Limbaugh declared:

We already have, ladies and gentlemen, I don’t know how many museums for women all over the country. They are called malls.

Limbaugh’s logic appears to rest on the idea that women like to go to malls and, thus, malls are women’s history museums. By that line of reasoning, any place where people congregate is a museum. Never mind such technicalities as the conservation of objects, development of exhibits, or education of visitors.

But maybe I am misrepresenting Limbaugh’s position. Maybe “a place where people congregate” is a broader definition of museum than Limbaugh means. Perhaps Limbaugh is saying that malls are women’s museums because malls are places where women like to buy goods and services, and therefore a museum for a specific audience is a place where that audience likes to make purchases.

Limbaugh then said that instead of using the word mall, “Hey, I could have said brothel, but I didn’t.”

So if malls are women’s museums because they are places where women like to make purchases, then… isn’t the typical brothel a men’s museum in Limbaugh’s world? In any case, Limbaugh’s argument that we don’t need a museum because we have [insert any other kind of building here] in the world reduces the word museum to meaninglessness.

US Capitol

The United States Capitol, where the House of Representatives voted on a feasibility study for a National Women’s History Museum and where only a small percentage of statues honor female historical figures

Meanwhile, newsreaders also get to hear from a House Member who voted against the bill. Representative Michele Bachmann (R-MN) is concerned, as the Washington Post article put it, “that there are no assurances it won’t become [in Bachmann’s words] ‘an ideological shrine to abortion.’ ”

She is correct! In fact, I would guess that the vast majority of museums are built without specific assurances that they won’t become ideological shrines to abortion. I hope anyone who wants to build a museum about women’s history or medicine, or for that matter, any topic at all, will include specific language in its founding documents that the museum will not become an ideological shrine to abortion. Otherwise, what assurance do we have? Parents certainly don’t want to take their toddlers to the local train museum or aquarium and be unpleasantly surprised by an altar to the abortion gods when they walk in the door.

In reality, museums are neither so broadly defined as to include any old place where people gather and shop, nor so narrowly defined that every topic they touch upon is “ideologically enshrined.” If a women’s history museum is done right, it will present the good and the bad, and the diversity of opinion and experience that American women have held.

One argument that I have heard against a women’s museum or any museum devoted to a specific heritage is that instead of building separate museums, everyone’s history should be woven into the National Museum of American History. And I have seen varying degrees of commitment to this approach, from genuine belief and efforts to have a greater variety of perspectives showcased in NMAH and other general history museums, to being dismissive of any narrative other than the one in the textbooks and the monuments.

I do not see mutual exclusivity in working to make an existing museum more inclusive and varied in the stories it tells, and building a new museum that, right away and with the intentionality of its very mission, will offer visitors a chance to see what they might be missing in the older museums. Additionally, specialty museums abound because people have interests into which they want to delve deeper. Hence, there are transportation museums; there are also train museums and boat museums and plane museums. There are large and small museums, old and new museums, art and history and science museums, and there is room for a great variety. (Note, in case you missed it: the proposed women’s history museum will not be funded by taxpayer money, so the “That’s all good and well but why should I have to help pay for it?” argument does not work here.)

P.S. In somewhat of a twist, while Michele Bachmann is worried that the National Women’s History Museum will celebrate abortion, the museum’s website is busy celebrating Michele Bachmann and motherhood (among its many content areas). Bachmann was included in the online exhibit Profiles in Motherhood in 2011, which she considered an honor at the time.

Perhaps in the not-too-distant-future, Americans can celebrate Mother’s Day by bringing their moms to the National Women’s History Museum. Happy Mother’s Day to all the mothers and mother figures out there!

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Chytrid Fungus Is a Modern Plague

A few weeks ago, I attended a humanist Passover seder. As we read the haggadah that had been adapted for our contemporary humanist community, we called out modern plagues as well as the traditional list, leading me to ask: what is so bad about frogs?

Others explained it to me: There were too many of them! The pharaoh woke up with frogs in his bed! They were raining from the sky! Okay, I wouldn’t like that either.

Nowadays, there are not enough frogs. The National Zoo, along with similar sites and organizations, aims to teach visitors about the chytrid fungus that is decimating frog and other amphibian species. While researchers from the Smithsonian rescue and study frogs in Panama, displays in the Zoo’s Amazonia exhibit educate people about the tiny poison dart frogs hiding in the bromeliad plant, and the risks they face from chytrid fungus and other environmental risks such as climate change and loss of natural habitat.

Poison Dart Frog at the National Zoo

Poison Dart Frog at the National Zoo

This is one thing I love about holidays: helping humans understand the plagues and triumphs of the past, the events worth commemorating and celebrating. This is one thing I love about museums and zoos: helping humans understand the plagues and triumphs of the past as well as those affecting our own world, and what we can do about them.

To all who celebrated Passover, I hope it was lovely and meaningful, and may we all eradicate the plagues of our time!

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Museum Peeps

The Washington Post’s annual Peeps diorama contest inevitably contains entries reflecting current events and pop culture from the past year (see, for example, this year’s collection of Miley Cyrus-themed works, in addition to references to Edward Snowden, the Sochi Olympics, and the polar vortex).  Among the news stories depicted in the 2014 finalists, the following museum and monument-related items were included:

The winning entry shows the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, whose 50th anniversary was commemorated last year. This gray-scale diorama resembles a historic photograph and shows the Washington Monument, the Reflecting Pool, and the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

“Peeps Painting Peeps” references the story of the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s being taken over by the National Gallery of Art and George Washington University after it was unable to stay afloat on its own.

In “This Site Is Opened,” World War II veterans in Peeps form break through barriers to get to the World War II Memorial after the government shutdown halted the everyday work of the National Park Service and numerous other agencies.

A Red Panda at the National Zoo

A Red Panda at the National Zoo

One diorama shows “Rusty the Red Peep” partying and eating jumbo slice pizza in Adams Morgan after escaping the National Zoo. The artists do a good job of making a Peep look like a red panda.

Another zoo story depicted in a diorama is that of the baby giant panda Bao Bao, who delights her admirers from inside her enclosure.

Happy Easter!

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Recent Museum Visits: Nature versus the Unnatural

I recently visited two sites in the DC area: the Mount Rainier Nature Center and the National Museum of Unnatural History. Both use elements of a natural history museum on a small scale – one to depict real science, and one to imagine the make-believe.

Here is how the two compare:

Red-Eared Sliders at Mount Rainier Nature Center

Red-Eared Sliders at Mount Rainier Nature Center

Who and Why

Mount Rainier Nature Center is part of the Prince George’s County Department of Parks and Recreation, whose operates under the following mission statement:

In partnership with our citizens, the Department of Parks and Recreation provides comprehensive park and recreation programs, facilities, and services which respond to changing needs within our communities. We strive to preserve, enhance, and protect our open spaces to enrich the quality of life for present and future generations in a safe and secure environment.

NMUH is run by 826DC, a nonprofit “dedicated to supporting students ages 6-18 with their creative and expository writing skills, and to helping teachers inspire their students to write.” The point of the storefront museum is not to present true scientific information, but to spark interest and imagination. It also serves as a gift shop that sells fun gift items like Future Mold (empty food storage containers) to raise money for the nonprofit.


MRNC is located within a mile walk of the West Hyattsville Metro station on the Green Line, though I’m not entirely sure about the walkability (are people really supposed to walk in that bike lane that is separated only by a white line from where the cars whiz by?). NMUH is about one block away from the Columbia Heights Metro station on the Yellow and Green Lines. Both are small spaces, and both are free to visit. MRNC is open 8:30-5 Tuesday through Saturday, and NMUH welcomes visitors from 12 to 6 every day.


I may have been an anomaly as an adult who visited each site alone. The activities available at each place imply that NMUH is geared toward older kids than MRNC. MRNC offered coloring stations, picture books, a large colorful rug, toys, and the classic Cat in the Hat movie playing on a TV, suggesting a preschool audience. At NMUH, whose mission is to help 6-through-18-year-olds with writing, the tongue-in-cheek displays and text that requires viewers to discern between real and pretend indicate an audience of older kids.


MRNC showcases live animals, including turtles, frogs, and insects. NMUH has a mascot, Alvarez, billed as the last living dinosaur – or perhaps an iguana who has lived its life in a DC residence before coming to its current home. NMUH also features taxidermy animals and tiny dioramas.


On MRNC’s grounds, visitors can see a butterfly garden and a rain garden, and a small courtyard. NMUH does not have outdoor space, but the room is adorned with some leafy plants.

National Museum of Unnatural History

National Museum of Unnatural History

Play Spaces

In addition to the indoor play areas at MRNC mentioned above, the site is also a recreation center with an outdoor playground, which was full of children and families on the warmish day I visited. Perhaps the biggest draw at NMUH is a cave in one corner, where visitors can hide and imagine.

Since It’s April…

I’ll mention that both sites have some Easter symbols: a live rabbit at MRNC, and so-called dinosaur eggs for sale at NMUH.

Happy Easter!

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Little Libraries and Little Museums, Revisited

Two years ago, I blogged about mini-parks and Little Free Libraries, and what these miniature versions of parks and libraries might imply for the possibility of miniature version of museums.

Little Free Library in Virginia

Little Free Library in Virginia

Since then, I have discovered that there are many Little Free Libraries in my area, and with the help of this handy map, I have set out to find them. If I’m going to a store or restaurant or museum with an LFL a few minutes’ walk away, I’ll take the time to go find and photograph it. They are just as cute in real life as in the photos. It’s equally interesting to open the tiny door and see what eclectic set of books is available.

Little Free Library in DC

Little Free Library in DC

Recently, I walked a few blocks from my apartment to an LFL, photographed it, and walked another few blocks in a different direction to the nearest branch of DC’s public library system, where I checked out a book. Why didn’t I just get a book from the LFL? The LFL didn’t have the specific book I needed, the one my book club is reading and which the public library was holding for me. LFLs are not so good when you need to find a certain book or research a particular subject, but if you just want to be surprised by a small and serendipitous set of choices, they are delightful and whimsical.

Little Free Library in Maryland

Little Free Library in Maryland

When I tried to imagine the same concept applied to museums, I envisioned similar little structures, filled with objects rather than books. A former toy developer in Virginia, Hans Fex, had a different idea: mini-museums consisting of tiny pieces of interesting specimens (like human brain and dirt from Dracula’s castle) encased in resin, which individuals can purchase and carry around in their pockets or display on their desks.

This project raises two main sets of questions for me:

  • Do these Mini-Museums truly boil down the essence of the museum to its tiniest form? Is it objects that ultimately make a museum, more so than place, context, interpretation, or visitors?
  • Why these particular 11, 22, or 33 objects? Do these dinosaur bone and moon rock pieces tap into some universal human interest, representing what is ultimately most profound and fascinating in this life? Would each person prefer their own unique set of artifact samples? Does this selection reflect any bias (for example, are these items the things Americans might find most interesting, while people from other cultures might choose a different set of objects?)?

I want to avoid the temptation to dismiss the Mini-Museum idea just because it’s different and untraditional. Or is it actually extremely traditional – hearkening back to the days when those who could afford it had their own personal cabinets of curiosities, with no curators or educators or conservators?

The Little Free Library and Mini-Museum concepts offer divergent takes on the idea of ownership. LFLs allow books to be shared indefinitely, with no owner – not the lender, not the borrower, not any library system supported by taxpayers. There is no one to whom the books ultimately have to be returned, though there’s a pay-it-forward ethos that encourages those who take a book to come back another time and leave a book.

Mini-museums, on the other hand, take mummy wrap, dinosaur egg, and meteorite and give paying customers a tiny chunk of each that they can call their own. To some extent, museum gift shops also allow visitors to take home a tiny bit of history or science or art, but the objects on display in exhibits for everyone to see are considered the main experience.

If you had your own mini-museum, what objects would you want it to include? And how do you think mini-museums fit into the larger museum world?

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