GO Arts: New exhibit at Washington State History Museum encourages kids to be curious through imaginary time-travel

Tacoma News TribuneMay 20, 2014 

Kids get curious about history at the Washington State History Museum's newest exhibit, "Ernest Oglby Punkweiler."

ROSEMARY PONNEKANTI — Staff writer Buy Photo

History can be a hard sell for young kids. There’s the enormous concept of time, for starters, and then the “what’s this got to do with me?” issue. Objects are untouchable behind glass, labels are too high to read. Grown-ups tell you to be quiet.

But what if a kid could become part of the picture and step into time through magic and sheer curiosity? Now that’s instantly more fun.

Which is exactly the premise of “Ernest Oglby Punkweiler and the Fabulous-Miraculous Time Intrusionator.” Just opened at the Washington State History Museum, the exhibit is based on a short story by museum education director Stephanie Lile, and curated by her to bring to life the tale of a sweetly geeky young boy and the fantastical journeys his curiosity takes him on. Enticed by exactly the kinds of things that fascinate Ernest – bizarre objects, moving pictures, a talking snake – kids will be drawn into history at their own level with touchable artifacts and history scenes you can play in.

At least, that’s the intention. And it works, for some ages and to some extent – but could do with some more details.

The story itself (publishing in “Soundings” magazine this year and soon to become a picture book, with illustrations by Mike Cressy) is on view in the gallery entrance, but it’s easier to just go right into the first room, where Lile’s voice reads the story aloud through speakers. The room’s a steampunker’s heaven: Set up to be the inside of the “teapot gas station” where Ernest, walking home from school one day, discovers the knack of time-traveling by jumping into photographs. Dark and mysterious, the roped-off half is filled with antique furniture, a dressmaker’s mannequin, a trunk and shelves full of Victorian curiosities. In Lucite cases are small totem poles, whimsical papier-mache monsters (including the very handy Moosealosaurus, who turns memories into chocolate bars) and old cameras similar to the Polaroid Ernest uses to snap himself back in time.

The exhibit then opens up into half-a-dozen “rooms” with enormous backdrop murals of moments in Washington history: wagons on a prairie, a tossing sea, a totem pole, a 1960s garbage dump. Kids can stick their faces into holes in the painting or pose in front of it for a photo, playing with objects from the time and place that tell the rest of the story. The art (by locals like Mike Cressy, Jo Gershman, Craig Orback and more) is beautiful, and it’s a lot of fun, enticing parents to reminisce about old metal toys and circular-dial phones. But if you’re older than six, you’ll want more information than the wall texts – cleverly disguised as letters from Ernest, now the Keeper of Time – offer. How bizarre to find out that folks in Port Townsend last century thought they saw a sea-serpent – but what happened then? Can we see a map? A newspaper article? And wall-texts at adult height don’t help curious kids.

The museum is in the process of installing scannable QR codes, which will take your (or your child’s) mobile device to an app, STQRY, that will reveal more back-stories. There will also be storytimes and other programs planned for the show, which runs through next spring.

But for now, the learning feels limited. And while it’s marvelous to make a child realize that all they need to be an “Intrusionator” (aka historian) is curiosity, and that museums are magical places, the magic needs more detail for those who, like Ernest Oglby Punkweiler, are truly curious. 

10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-8 p.m. third Thursdays through April 2015. $9.50 adults/$7 seniors, students/free ages five and under, military families and third Thursdays. Washington State History  Museum, 1911 Pacific Ave., Tacoma. 888-BE THERE, washingtonhistory.org 

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568 rosemary.ponnekanti@thenewstribune.com

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