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Bigger, better Children's Museum set to reopen after $10-million makeover

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Play structures are a dime a dozen, but it's not every day you get to climb a slab of Swiss cheese and monkey around with giant "tomatoes" in the Spaghetti Forest before making your way to the top of Lasagna Lookout.

"I hanged on to one of those noodles and I made a monkey sound," said Emily Cox, 6, during a snack break at the Manitoba Children's Museum on Wednesday.

The chatty kindergartner was among dozens of school kids who were on hand to give the media expert opinions on the $10-million renovation/expansion that saw virtually every element of the museum at The Forks replaced over the past eight months.

"I think the slide is the best," Emily said of the Illusion Tunnel, which uses forced perspective and a ramped floor to create eye-fooling effects. "It's really fun because you can go upstairs and there's a thing you can look through to watch people going down the slide."

From a certain angle, it appears as if an enormous (real) train is about to rumble down the tracks straight into the tunnel.

CN diesel locomotive (No. 9161), the "spine" of the museum, is the only thing that remains after 16 years and more than two million visits, said Lisa Dziedzic, director of marketing and communications.

"The train is the only thing people will recognize, but even with that, the Pullman coach car has been completely renovated and one side of the Engine House was removed and replaced with Plexiglas," Dziedzic said.

The $10-million makeover doubled the number of galleries to 12 and added 3,500 square feet of space in the form of a Welcome Centre at the front of the building to accommodate a new admissions desk, museum shop and lunch room. The addition, which looks like a half-buried box tipped on its side, is still under construction and expected to open in the summer.

The 12 "discovery learning" galleries, designed by Montreal's Toboggan Design, are multi-level, open-ended cubes (based on children's building blocks). They're separate structures, so that if one needs to be repaired, renovated or replaced, the others won't be disturbed.

"We told them we wanted something that had never been done in a children's museum before," said Diane Doth, the museum's executive director. "We wanted to be on the leading edge."

You'll find a grocery store in every children's museum, Doth says, but here at the Pop m'Art, instead of canned goods and produce, kids "shop" for arts supplies and create works of art. Emily, for instance, made a duck out of a sippy cup lid.

"We knew we really wanted a climbing structure, but we didn't want it to look like the ones you find in fast-food restaurants," she says. Like all of the galleries, the Lasagna Lookout, with its "rigatoni rollers" and tomato-shaped puzzle pieces, has some kind of tie in to Manitoba's educational curriculum.

Rather than sticking with the "role-playing" exhibits -- i.e. the fire truck, traditional grocery store -- that have characterized children's museums in recent decades, Toboggan opted for a design that would encourage creativity and provide a lot of open-ended play, says lead designer Laurent Carrier.

Tumble Zone, for example, feels like a construction area, with its 5,000 big Lego-type blocks and the crane that kids can use to lift them for creating cityscapes. "But there's not one way, or a wrong way, to use the space," Carrier said. "Kids are so often restricted by rules set by adults. The idea here is to let them explore and discover at their own rhythm."

To make the galleries even more interactive, the museum has added a handful of costumed characters or "helpers," including Field Trip Kid, The Artist, The Chef, The Conductor and The Mayor. The latter held court at Time Squared, the museum's central meeting place and clock tower, dressed in top hat and waving around his giant key to the city.

"Basically, we set up this space as if it were a city, with 12 different destinations," said Carrier, whose company has designed about a dozen children's museums around the world.

"(The Mayor and co.) are starting to add a storyline to it and that will evolve over time."

The Manitoba Children's Museum officially re-opens to the public on Saturday. For more information, go to www.childrensmuseum.com

carolin.vesely@freepress.mb.ca

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Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 2, 2011 D1

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