- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 7, 2000

A trip to a traditional museum with its look-but-don't-touch philosophy can be an exercise in frustration for young
visitors. At the Smithsonian Naturalist Center in Leesburg, Va. where touching is not only allowed, but encouraged a visitor's only frustration is deciding which of the collection's 30,000 objects to handle first.
"We don't think of ourselves as a museum," says Naturalist Center Director Richard Efthim, waving his arms in the center's vast main gallery, which is filled with a collection of specimens from the plant, animal and mineral kingdoms. "What we do here is create the environment of the scientist and then step back and let curiosity and scientific discovery take place."
The center, which is open Tuesday through Saturday, doesn't have set tours but offers scientific instruments, exhibits and well-informed docents to help visitors "learn through serendipitous exploration," Mr. Efthim says.
Once housed in the National Museum of Natural History on the Mall, the center was forced to relocate four years ago when the new Imax theater was built. It found an unconventional home in a Leesburg office park when Loudoun County offered the space rent-free as part of a reciprocal relationship that brings Loudoun middle school science classes to the center nearly every day. The space is temporary. The long-term plan is to build a permanent museum for the collection, probably in Loudoun County, Mr. Efthim says.
The substantial increase in space is the trade-off for a drop in the number of visitors.
"When we were on the Mall, we got a lot of walk-ins from the 6.5 million visitors [to the Smithsonian] a year," says Mr. Efthim, who has been with the Smithsonian for 20 years. "Now we average about 8,000 visitors a year, and half of them are school groups."
The walls echo with the sounds of enthusiastic scientific discovery during weekday mornings, but afternoons and weekends offer visitors plenty of quiet space to research science-fair projects, sketch animals or go on scientific hunts just for the fun of it.
"Ideally, each visitor will be totally self-directed," Mr. Efthim says, "but we have 'Museum Mysteries' for those who need help in beginning their scientific journey."
These mysteries ask visitors to use their powers of observation and logic to solve stated problems. The sign for one such mystery, located near a dog's skeleton, tells visitors the dog was hit by a car and asks whether it survived the accident. Observant visitors can find a healed bone that indicates the animal lived long enough for the broken bone to mend.
More than 70 volunteer docents help Mr. Efthim and assistant director Helene Lisy handle visitors' questions and requests. Patricia Newson travels to Leesburg from her Chevy Chase home each week to help sort specimens and answer scientific inquiries.
"It's certainly increased my vocabulary," Mrs. Newson says as she sorts shells into their carefully identified drawers in wall-length cabinets. Other cabinets hold thousands of varieties of insects. Floor-to-ceiling shelves hold jar after formaldehyde-filled jar of various fish, mollusks and invertebrates. "I've been doing this for 20 years, and every week I still learn something new," Mrs. Newson says.
The main gallery is limited to visitors 10 years old or older, but a smaller hands-on activity area is designed for the youngest scientists. They can count butterflies, handle turtle shells and elephant tusks and play with various "discovery boxes" while older children explore the main gallery.
"We've had many families where a parent will play in the front room with younger children while older children are helped by a docent in the main room," Mr. Efthim says.
In the fall and spring, the center sponsors "Identi-Days," when visitors can bring in their fossil, rock or mineral finds for identification by Smithsonian experts.
"It's just like the 'Antique Road Show,' " says Ms. Lisy, the center's assistant director. "Every specialist has their own table, and people get so excited when they bring in a real find, like an Indian arrowhead."
The next Identi-Day will be Saturday, and another is scheduled for April 29. The center also sponsors "Draw-In" days, when the center is staffed with scientific illustrators who help visitors sketch some of the myriad specimens.

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