- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 1, 2000

Boredom is an endangered species at the Maryland Science Center this summer. Charging elephants, dignified camels and robotic rhinos are routing the summer doldrums in the impressive "Africa: One Continent, Many Worlds" exhibition.
Located on the promenade of Baltimore's Inner Harbor, the nonprofit center is a place of hands-on, mind-tickling exhibits. Visitors are able to touch, manipulate and play with the displays in ways that spur discovery.
Live demonstrations go on all day on topics that include chemical reactions, inertia and liquid nitrogen. Young audience members are recruited to mix chemicals, feel temperatures and assist in the experiments.
Whether your interest is astronomy or biology, the center's laser light shows will enthrall you. In the Davis Planetarium, you can see "Raging Sun," "Stars of the Southern Sky" or "Live From the Sun." Each Thursday evening, a free sky-gazing session is offered for the general public to see the celestial objects of the season.
The museum is designed ideally to encourage various kinds of learners. For instance, in one exhibit, active learners enjoy the experience of pulling on a rope to draw water for their camel, finding out exactly how much effort it takes to get water from a desert well. Or they can grab tools and do some excavating at an archaeological dig for dinosaur bones. They are encouraged to follow in a dinosaur's footsteps and to create their own whirlpools by spinning a wheel.
As a result, children feel excited and involved in the exhibits. Any parent who has tried to herd children through a more traditional museum of "please don't touch" exhibits knows how hard it is to keep their interest going while constantly nagging them. Here, the children and parents both can relax and enjoy.
The Africa exhibit is a sophisticated mix of artifacts, hands-on displays and videos demonstrating distinctive customs in certain of the cultures.
Through the videos, visitors can experience a ritual tea ceremony among men, the cooking of a traditional meal or the preparations for a religious celebration.
The royal arts of the Bamum culture are explained in both historical and current contexts, including the meaning of a 4-foot brass sculpture of a double-headed snake: It symbolizes the ability to defeat two enemies at once.
Children love the life-size models of a giraffe, hippopotamus and even a robotic rhinoceros as well as the binocular videos of mountain gorillas.
For budding entomologists, there is a display on amazing termite mounds that can reach up to 15 feet in height and diameter to house veritable cities of these insects.
The Imax film "Africa's Elephant Kingdom" is a cinematic safari. With the awesome clarity and scope of the images, the viewer can almost feel the dust, heat, floods and vegetation that surround the dignified giants of the African plains. The life cycle and seasonal migrations are conveyed palpably, yet the playfulness and affectionate nature of the elephant clan clearly are the focus.
Children and adults both can relate to the strong family ties and protective nature of the elephants as well as the difficulties they face in surviving.
One of the unusual aspects of the African exhibit is on the slave trade. Visitors are moved by depictions of slave ships, the auction block and the stories told by four captives in their native languages and translated for an additional touch of realism. Nevertheless, the triumph of the human spirit is shown through displays of the many contributions made to the world by those whose ancestral home was Africa.
One simple but very effective display on our visit showed the land masses of the United States, Europe, China, India and several other areas superimposed on Africa with room left over. This one exhibit made the vastness of the continent suddenly become clear.
If you want to make the most of your visit, plan to stay the whole day. The museum has a full-service Friendly's Express restaurant inside and picnic areas outside for those who pack a lunch. It's restful to sit at the harbor side and watch the cool waters and the many ships moored or sailing there. Parking is available by meters on the street and in various nearby garages and lots. The museum shop is full of exciting and educational items, too don't leave without a good look.
The entrance fee of $11.50 for adults and $8.50 for children is a good value: It includes the admission to the Imax films, the laser shows, the planetarium and all exhibits and is good for the whole day. There is even a Kids Room, where very young children can play. The child must be accompanied by an adult.
Mixed-age groups will find plenty for everyone to enjoy. In our group, the boys loved the remote-control moon vehicles they could build and then operate in the space-exploration center and the heat-sensor screen that showed them the hotter and colder zones of their own bodies.
The girls enjoyed the laser light show about the brain and the interactive math displays on curves and space.
The greatest part was that after being there for five hours, no one was bored, whining or arguing. Everyone wanted to go back again, to see the things they had missed the first time. As any parent knows, it's hard to keep a group of children interested and excited for that long, especially when it's educational.

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