Summer Treasures: Children's Museum 

We think a lot of our local museums, but noted not long ago we're in a particularly rich period when it comes to current exhibits — from the IMA's Thornton Dial exhibit to the Eiteljorg's Red/Black: Related Through History show to the Indiana History Center's You are There exhibit. Now, with the unveiling of the immersive Civil War experience at Conner Prairie, and the just-opened Treasures of the Earth exhibit at The Children's Museum, we're downright boggled by all the riches. We've broken these great choices into three features. In addition to this story, don't miss Summer: Treasures: Conner Prairie and Summer Treasures: Six museum must-sees

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The Children's Museum's National Geographic Treasures of the Earth

"It's all about feeling like you're there," says Jeffrey Patchen, the president and CEO of The Children's Museum of Indianapolis as he makes his way through National Geographic Treasures of the Earth, the museum's new, blockbuster permanent exhibit.

Five years in the making, Treasures of the Earth is designed to provide kids (and their parents) with a set of globe-straddling immersive experiences based on major and ongoing archaeological breakthroughs. The exhibit is loaded with the hands-on, imaginative theatricality that The Children's Museum is famous for. Kids are given the chance to make believe in Egyptian, Chinese and Caribbean settings, as they pretend to unearth the secrets of a pharaoh's tomb, a mass of terra cotta Chinese warriors and the underwater site of a sunken pirate ship.

But what invests the exhibit with deep resonance is the fact that everything visitors see, experience and learn is informed by the real archaeological work that continues at the three sites depicted. "The exciting thing about this," says Patchen, "is that [the museum] is tied into each of these three places and things going on in them."

The museum has gone so far as to install an archaeological lab facility to handle dry and wet artifacts that may be found during the course of archaeological excavation and sent back to Indianapolis for preservation.

Treasures of the Earth is the result of the collaborative relationships The Children's Museum has been able to establish over the years with a variety of scholarly and cultural institutions, including the National Geographic Society, Dr. ZahiHawass and Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, China's Shaanxi Provincial Institute for Archaeological Research and Xi'an Municipal Museum, and Indiana University Bloomington and its department of underwater science. Objects and artifacts on display in the exhibit have been loaned from such institutions as the Art Institute of Chicago, the University of Pennsylvania, the British Museum and the Brooklyn Museum.

click to enlarge The exhibit includes replicas of Chinese Terra cotta warriors, dating back to 246 B.C. throughout.
  • The exhibit includes replicas of Chinese Terra cotta warriors, dating back to 246 B.C. throughout.

The exhibit occupies two levels in the museum. Visitors are invited to flow from one archaeological site to the next in a sequence that begins with the 1974 discovery in the town of Xi'an of what amounted to a mass tomb containing thousands of life-size Chinese terra cotta warriors. Historical interpreters will play the parts of a farmer and his wife, who discovered the trove while digging a well. The figures date back to the reign of China's first emperor, Qin Shi Huangdi, who became ruler of the Kingdom of Qin in 246 B.C.

The problem facing archaeologists who were called to the site was that out of approximately eight thousand warrior figures, only was one was still intact. The site amounted to a massive terra cotta boneyard. Visitors will be able to dig up and piece together a variety of broken figures; they will also learn about the science that has revealed what the figures looked like when they were first created.

From China, visitors will travel to the Caribbean Sea, off the coast of the Dominican Republic, where Indiana University's Charles Beeker and his team have been searching for sunken 17th- and 18th-century ships from the period referred to as "the Golden Age of Piracy." Beeker is responsible for finding what's been called the only pirate shipwreck in the Caribbean, the remains of the Cara Merchant, a ship captured by Captain William Kidd in 1696.

Kidd would ultimately be hanged for piracy in England. But documents found after his death indicated that he may, in fact, have been a privateer, hired by England to prey on pirates. Exhibit visitors will have a chance to determine for themselves Kidd's guilt or innocence.

They will also see a cannon Beeker and his crew pulled up from the sea, along with a variety of other artifacts found by divers, such as a wide-bottomed onion bottle, grapeshot and Spanish coins. The cannon is in the museum's wet lab, a glass tank where it is undergoing electrolytic reduction to remove salts and minerals that have accumulated on its surface during centuries under water. "In a couple of years, this will start to look the way it did when it was made," says Patchen.

The exhibit also shows how archaeologists relate to a fragile undersea environment. Kids will see how Beeker uses common twist-ties to repair damaged coral reefs. "We want kids to understand that one of the things archaeologists do, even though they're not scientific environmentalists, is about repairing the environment," says Patchen.

Treasures of the Earth culminates with a recreation of the story of how Egypt's Dr. ZahiHawass discovered the burial chamber of Pharaoh Seti I. Kids will find themselves in a remarkably detailed recreation of parts of SetiI's burial chamber, where a sound and light show featuring Dr. Hawass will encourage them to work together to interpret the tomb's hieroglyphs and reassemble the pharaoh's broken sarcophagus lid. A computerized tomography (CT) scanner enables visitors to see through a replica of the mummy's wrappings to look for signs of aging, evidence of tomb robbers and family resemblance with other mummies. There are also examples of objects found in the tomb, such as carved figures, shards of pottery with drawings and amulets, as well as canopic jars that held the deceased pharaoh's internal organs.

"We've taken three tour groups and friends of the museum and donors to Egypt, and two different groups to China," says Patchen, who also traveled to the Dominican Republic to participate in the dedication of an underwater museum at the site of the Cara Merchant wreck off the coast of Catalina Island. "People get a feel for it and the flavor of it and the passion to bring it back here."

In developing a permanent exhibit, Patchen says, "We don't start construction until we know where the money's coming from." The Children's Museum was able to create the National GeographicTreasures of the Earth exhibit with support from a variety of private sources, including the Eli Lilly and Company Foundation, The Enid Goodrich Educational Initiatives Fund, R.B. Annis Educational Foundation, Marilyn and Jim Bartlett Family and Virginia Tutterow.

"While we may not be experts in Chinese archaeology or in Egyptology, we have these relationships that bring in experts to help us with the content and then we are the experts on how to deliver it to children and families," says Patchen. The National Geographic Treasures of the Earth exhibit creates a sense of being there he hopes visitors will want to return to again and again.

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