Archive for July, 2009

The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis

Posted on July 21st, 2009 in Education, Entertainment | 5 Comments »

The Internet is universally recognized as being the perfect medium for inciting flamewars, but I have personally never seen a flamewar about Children’s Museums. In this post, I intend to pull out my tinder box and do my level best to start one. Why? In short, I had a visceral, gut-level reaction upon reading Wired.com’s list of 100 Geeky Places to Take Your Kids this Summer. I got the the end of the list and found myself stunned. They left the premier Children’s Museum in the world off their list: The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis.

One special summer exhibit at the Children’s Museum is Tutankhamun: The Golden King and the Great Pharaohs. The King Tut exhibit includes tons of artifacts never seen before in the United States. They even have the little organ-preserving jars used to preserve King Tut’s organs! How cool is that? If you’ve ever seen a show on ancient Egypt, it’s likely that you’ve seen Dr. Zahi Hawass. He’s coming to Indianapolis to speak at Butler University on August 7th in conjunction with this exhibit. WISH TV, an Indy-area station, has produced a muti-part, detailed documentary in conjunction with the King Tut special exhibit. This documentary includes a segment on how Egypt is building their own Children’s Museum and specifically sought the advice and help of the leaders of the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis for help in their efforts. In short, this is a major, major exhibit for kids this summer.

Star Wars: The Clone Wars is another special summer exhibit at the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. The Star Wars exhibit talks about building and animating the Star Wars world and has lots of technical geekery. It includes scale models, digital prints, and a life-size Jedi starfighter. At this point my last rational explanation as to why they folks at Wired.com would have left the Indy Children’s Museum off their list was, “Well, maybe they just didn’t think it was geeky enough…” It’s freaking Star Wars!! That’s almost the definition of geeky!

I’ve only mentioned two special exhibits showing this summer, but, in the words of every late night TV infomercial, that’s not all! The Indy Children’s Museum has 11 major galleries including a 130-seat planetarium, the world’s largest water clock, a multi-floor dinosaur exhibit, and a biotech learning center in their ScienceWorks wing. It’s difficult to convey the size of this museum. At 472,900 square feet, it is the world’s largest Children’s Museum with the largest museum collection for kids in the world. Parents.com has rated it as the best Children’s Museum in the United States. Over 1 million people visit it every year. The numbers are just staggering.

When I was a kid growing up in the Indianapolis area, I took part in their Museum Apprentice Program (called MAP), which is just one of the many ways to volunteer at the Museum. I participated during the summer after 8th grade, and I went to the Children’s Museum 1 to 3 days (roughly 8 hours with a 30 minute lunch break) per week over the course of the summer. I probably was there about 25 times in total. MAP kids worked as apprentices in one of the main galleries, and I got to work in the Science Spectrum (now ScienceWorks) area. I setup props for science shows, and I did demos of cool science experiments about things like angular momentum or water surface tension. I got special access to some of their storage areas and I used my lunch breaks to explore the areas where I wasn’t working. In all that time, I think I may have finally seen everything they had. And the Children’s Museum has had three major expansions since then (1996, 2004, and 2009)!

It’s not as though they didn’t include any Children’s Museums on the Wired.com list. The Austin Children’s Museum (#6 on the list) is only 12,000 square feet of exhibit space and has an embroidery workshop this summer. Uhm, yay? The San Jose Children’s Discovery Museum (#12 on the list) is only 28,000 square feet of exhibit space and features a 1950s Post Office. Nothing excites children like post offices from the 1950s. The EdVenture Children’s Museum in Columbia, South Carolina (#25 on the list) is only 67,000 square feet of exhibit space and features an exhibit entitled, (I can’t make this up) “The World of Work.” The Omaha Children’s Museum (#65 on the list) is only 60,000 square feet of exhibit space and features a traveling Sesame Street exhibit this summer, which at least sounds like it might not completely suck. The Stepping Stones Museum for Children in Norwalk, CT (#91 on the list) is in the middle of a 22,000 square foot expansion and has an exhibit on Rainforest Adventures, which also sounds decent.

Now, let’s think like a child and imagine if we combined all five of these geeky Children’s Museums from all over the United States into one Children’s Museum worthy of five spots on the list of 100 Geeky places to take your kids this summer. We would have something less than half the size of the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis with exhibits on Embroidery, a 1950s Post Office, “The World of Work,” Sesame Street, and Rainforest Adventures. That’s not exactly leaping out to me as better than Nintendo. Of course, it’s all imaginary because that museum is actually five separate museums located in Texas, Califorina, South Carolina, Nebraska, and Connecticut. For the sake of argument though, let’s compare our imaginary museum to the real-world Children’s Museum of Indianapolis: Would your kids rather see mummies, dinosaurs, a giant water clock, a planetarium, and Star Wars or go to embroidery workshops, 1950s post offices, and “The World of Work”? Seriously, I don’t think this is much of a contest, and I dare the folks at Wired.com to justify their omission.

Book: The Great Gatsby

Posted on July 4th, 2009 in Books, Education, Entertainment | 7 Comments »

This post is a part of The Great American Novel Challenge. If you’re interested in taking part in the challenge, feel free to jump right in next month.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald is classic required reading for high school students across the country. However, I somehow managed to avoid reading this book until a time of my own choosing. (Though I was required to read Like Water for Chocolate which no one outside of my high school seems to have read.) The Great Gatsby is also considered universally to be a masterpiece of American literature. It was chosen by editors from Random House as the second best novel published in the English language since 1900. Radcliffe Publishing chose it as the best novel in their rival list. It is consistently mentioned as a Great American Novel, and it is only about 180 pages long, so it’s a perfect way to start investigating all those things that you should have read when they were assigned.

I have to confess that this was one of the books that led me to create the Great American Novel Challenge. I chose to spend part of my summer improving my writing, and in this effort, I found Susan Bell’s analysis of how editing improved The Great Gatsby. I felt convicted for not having read the book. Now that I have read it, I feel like I need to read it again. Almost as soon as I finished I knew that Susan was right: this book was meticulously crafted. The book has not become outdated; it has become more elegant with age. This is where all that careful editing pays off. There are several sentences, particularly later in the novel, that are packed with meaning.

One could say that The Great Gatsby is another book about materialism or debauchery, but that sells it short. One could also say that it is about one man’s attempt to recapture the past, but that too sells the novel short. It is about the nature of authentic love, but again, labeling it as such sells it short. It is about the culture war between the midwest and the east coast, but in some ways it is about every culture war. It is about achieving the American Dream, or maybe defining your own American Dream, but this too seems to be incomplete.

Perhaps it is best to label The Great Gatsby as the first book to explore the quarter-life crisis. Although the term itself is relatively new, Fitzgerald shows that the concept is not. Virtually all the characters are in their late twenties and early thirties. They are all frustrated with their relationships, struggling to form meaningful long-term plans, and most of them are nostalgic for some earlier time in their lives when things seemed to make sense. F. Scott Fitzgerald was in his late 20′s himself when the book was published. It seems that Generation X and Generation Y are not the first to wonder about their place in the world. Even before America was a world superpower, Americans have struggled with trying to find a way to live meaningfully, contribute to the world, and in so doing become the “greatest” images of ourselves. In many ways, we are still living in the Jazz Age.

I promised myself that regardless of the books I chose to read as a part of the Great American Novel Challenge, I would offer some critique rather than simple-minded, endless affection. It’s easy to praise the things that worked because everyone likes to hear about what works. In addition, most reviewers don’t want to believe that they read something generally not worth reading. However, no book is perfect, and for me the part of the book that was least effective was the role of Nick Carraway as both participant in the novel and narrator of the novel. Weaving between these two literary roles would be challenging for any author, but Fitzgerald doesn’t do it well enough to avoid all confusion about whether Nick was a ‘real’ character. Nick’s character development seems stunted, particularly in the early parts of the book. I suppose this bothered me less by the end either because Nick was more of a participant or because I had grown accustomed to it.

Nick’s character development aside, The Great Gatsby is a fantastic book. It’s a short read, and if you haven’t read it you can easily finish it in an afternoon. Since much of the book actually takes place around the fourth of July and throughout the summer, I would urge you to consider reading it on a lazy summer Saturday afternoon. It’s not as stuffy or “intellectual” as you might think. There’s drugs, sex, controversy, murder, and all the things that would get it an R rating if Michael Bay turned it into a movie.

Now that I’ve posted this review, I have officially accepted the Great American Novel Challenge. One book down, twelve to go. I will update this post on Monday with a list of the links to other participating blogs. If you are interested in participating, feel free to start at any time.

[Update: At this point in the challenge, there are two other participating bloggers. Allison posted her review of Absalom, Absalom! (William Faulkner, 1936) on the morning of the 4th, and Carl posted his review of The Last of the Mohicans (James Fenimore Cooper, 1826) just under the wire on the evening of the 4th. I'd encourage you to take a look at their thoughts on these books. If you're interested in participating, grab a book and post a review on August 4th.]