- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 14, 2004

A museum devoted to architecture, engineering, inventions and building materials? It might sound a bit dry. But it isn’t when done a la the National Building Museum, which proves that these topics, with the help of family programs and festivals, can be surprisingly exciting and child-friendly.

About 100 young children came to the museum on a recent Sunday afternoon to watch model airplanes, built and operated by members of the model-plane group D.C. Maxecuters, soar toward the museum’s 15-story Great Hall ceiling.

A children’s event at the National Building Museum would not be complete without a hands-on activity. So, during the model-airplane demonstration, about 60 or 70 children of all ages built their own airplane mobiles from materials, including feathers, markers, glue and wood pieces in the shape of chubby airplanes, provided by the museum at a cost of $3 per mobile.

“We want to get the children excited about certain concepts in engineering and the built environment,” says Ayamu Ota, the museum’s family programs coordinator. “Making these mobiles is a small step toward creating their own model airplane in the future.”

The museum offers four or five all-day family festivals a year, hands-on family activities at least twice a month and minilectures geared toward children on bridges and building materials every weekend. The next family festival is Saturday’s Zoom Into Engineering event.)

The family festivals draw up to 5,000 visitors in a day.

“And when there are no scheduled activities, we have these activity booklets that children can work on while they’re at the museum and then take home,” says museum spokeswoman Jill Dixon.

The booklets give assignments such as identifying different types of columns.

While the scheduled family activities are geared toward young children, toddlers to 10- or 11-year-olds, the current exhibits are more appropriate for older children and teenagers. For example, the “DC Builds: The Anacostia Waterfront” exhibit, which opened Jan. 17, shows how important the Anacostia River has been for the District, how dirty city residents have made the river and what the city is doing to revitalize the waterfront.

The “Tools as Art” exhibit revolves around tools, such as hammers and saws, used in creating sculptures and other mixed-media artwork; the “Masonry Variations” exhibit talks about different building materials, and “Up, Down, Across: Elevators, Escalators and Moving Sidewalks” highlights the evolution of these various “people transporters.”

Though the museum is brimming with exhibits and activities, let’s not forget the appeal of the space itself. With a carpeted floor space of more than 36,000 square feet, the Great Hall, complete with a fountain in the middle, provides plenty of room for children to run and tumble.

“We present a variety of programs to serve all ages, from toddlers to teenagers,” Ms. Dixon says, “and their parents always have fun, too.”

WHEN YOU GO:

Location: The National Building Museum is located at 401 F St. NW, Washington.

Directions: The museum is four blocks northwest of the Capitol.

Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday; 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s days.

Admission: Free, but a $5 donation is suggested.

Parking: Limited metered parking is available. The museum is easily accessible by Metro; the closest stop is Judiciary Square, on the Red Line.

Note: The museum has a cafe that offers sandwiches, salads, baked goods, beverages and ice cream. Most family activities are on the weekends, but the information desk provides activity packets to children every day of the week. These activity packets ask children to identify different types of columns and create human arches and introduces architectural terms such as cornice and truss. The museum also arranges birthday parties ($200 for 10 children) for children ages 3 through 9. The parties include a tour of the museum, a hands-on activity — such as designing a train or making an origami hat — and party favors for the children. Parents are responsible for cake.

More information: Call 202/272-2448 or visit www.nbm.org. Send e-mail to family@nbm.org for more information on birthday parties.

• Saturday — 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Zoom Into Engineering family festival. Children get a chance to meet cast members of the PBS series “Zoom” and discover how engineers turn their ideas into reality. The event includes hands-on activities. Appropriate for children ages 5 to 13. Free.• March 7 — 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Flying in the Great Hall. Learn about model airplanes as members of the D.C. Maxecuters, a model plane group, fly their airplanes in the museum’s Great Hall. Rubber-band-powered model airplanes take flight in a series of launches throughout the day. Appropriate for all ages. Free.

• March 7 — 1 to 3:30 p.m. The Wonder of Wind Chimes. Wind influences everything from what we wear to how we fly. It also affects how we hear wind chimes. Wind chimes are designed to dangle in the wind and use its force to produce sound. Families create wind chimes out of hardware and decorate them with craft material. Appropriate for all ages. Fee: $5 per wind chime.• April 10 — 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Festival of Origami Architecture. Celebrate the Japanese art of origami and the art of designing paper buildings. Appropriate for all ages. Free.• June 19 — 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Concrete Construction family day. Discover the world of this common building material by mixing concrete, testing various structures and more. Appropriate for all ages. Free.

ONGOING PROGRAMS:

• Every Saturday — 2:30 to 3 p.m. Bridging the Gap. Families learn about bridges before solving a community’s transportation problem by choosing a new bridge to build. Appropriate for all ages. Free.

• Every Sunday — 2:30 to 3 p.m. Arches and Trusses: The Tension Builds. Families examine different building materials and work together to build an arch. Appropriate for all ages. Free.

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