Last week we received a call from our daughter, who seemed to be getting cabin fever from being confined indoors with her four young children, due to the heat and air-quality alerts. Noticing the desperation she heard in her voice, my wife Diane, who is still recovering from surgery, agreed that we would go with her and the children on a three-day visit of Indianapolis area museums. Our daughter lives near Cincinnati and after seeing all their local attractions, in a outburst of Hoosier hubris, we had bragged about the wonderful Indianapolis museums. Little did we know it would come back to bite us.
Our first foray was to the Indiana State Museum on Friday morning. Before it heated up the children and their mother went on a paddle boat ride on the White River Canal. Diane and I opted out and found a shady bench overlooking the canal. Next to us was an older Japanese gentleman, playing some instrument that resembled a gourd. This impromptu concert was entertaining for the first 40 minutes or so, but after that it required a couple of Tylenol.
Inside the museum proper, the kids weren’t all that interested in the “Birth of the Earth” or the “The Ancient Seas” . These exhibits consisted mostly of of rocks, and fossils that looked like rocks. It’s probably for the best that they didn’t pay much attention to the overhead models of a gigantic primitive squid, an enormous pincher-wielding trilobite, and a fearsome prehistoric shark. These things could be the stuff of nightmares. The kids did spent a lot of time looking at the exhibits in the Naturalist’s Lab, where they imitated animal sounds, something at which they excelled.
On another floor we learned all about famous people from Indiana (they weren’t impressed) and how the television evolved from primordial radio sets. It was depressing to see many of the things from my childhood on display in the pop culture section. From the kids’ perspective record players and Easy Bake Ovens were in the same class as tyrannosaurus bones and ancient Egyptian mummies.
For lunch we ate at one of Diane’s favorite restaurants, the Ayres Tea Room, which has been re-created on the third floor of the museum. This team room operated in a large department store in downtown Indianapolis from 1905 to 1990 and was famous for its “hobo lunches” for kids, which were wrapped in bandannas. Our preteen granddaughter insisted that she have a pot of tea. like the adults and then complained constantly about how bad it tasted. Although none of them were on their best behavior, the children all got small wrapped prizes from a large treasure chest by the entrance to the restaurant.
I was hoping the top floor exhibit would be impressive enough to pull our fat out of the fire and justify our bragging. The Abraham Lincoln exhibit, however, was gone and had been replaced by “Amazing Maize”. It may have been stereotypical for Indiana, but to paraphrase David Barry, it was the best corn-related exhibit I’ve ever seen. The kids barely glanced at the stuff, but they fought over who got to sit behind the wheel of the big tractor.
Undaunted we set out the next morning for the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, the world’s largest children’s museum. Besides dinosaurs busting through the side of building, the first thing I noticed was the incredibly loud noise level. I can believe that this is an international attraction, since I must have heard tantrums in at least six different languages
. Our five year-old grandson was duly impressed by the gigantic Bumblebee Transformer robot, displayed in the entrance hall, as well as the Spiderman figure perched on the wall. All them enjoyed the Treasures of the Earth Exhibit, where they got to pretend to scuba dive and search for pirate artifacts; scan a mummy for clues to its identity, and help excavate ancient Chinese terra cotta warrior statues. The Lego and Hot Wheels exhibits featured familiar toys, so they were especially popular, crowed, and noisy. My favorite activity was the “How I Became a Pirate” show, based on a children’s book. It was a professionally produced musical in a nice comfortable, cool, and snoozable theater.
The Power of Children Exhibit lent an unexpected serious note to the Children’s Museum. It featured the stories of trio of heroic children: Anne Frank, Ruby Bridges, and Ryan White. It was difficult to explain the Nazis, bigotry, and discrimination to preschoolers, so we didn’t spend a lot of time there. It reminded me of the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. in terms of style and the solemn tone.
Since it was 91o and the humidity was approaching 100%, we decided to spend our last day in Indianapolis outdoors at the Conner Prairie Interactive History Park. Due to the heat, the hot air balloon ride was cancelled, along with the candle dipping (they kept melting).
We first visited a rather dusty Indian village, where the kids sat in a dugout canoe and crawled in and out of wigwams. The interpreter was a little concerned that kids were being too rough with the antique wood shaving tool, which Diane had told them was a spanking machine.
The kids did a basket weaving activity, which turned out pretty well, but caused them to just miss the guided tour of the Conner House. Conner Prairie is a stickler when it comes to punctuality.
We spent a lot of time in the 1836 Prairietown part of the park. This re-creation of a pioneer village had a lot of enactors, all of who stayed in character, whenever you spoke to them. I don’t how they tolerated the heavy clothing in the stifling heat. Children were given roles to act out. Many of them did chores of the era like sweeping floors and carrying around heavy buckets of water.
Our last stop was the 1863 Civil War village where we saw an army encampment and some of the damage done to the town of Dupont by General Morgan’s Confederate raiders. A recruitment center for militia volunteers was set up in one of the houses. The children especially enjoyed the River Crossing Play Area that include civil war costumes, water play and a kid-sized model of the Alice Dean, the Howard built steamship Morgan used to cross the Ohio River and then burned.
Thankfully we rode a tram back to the Visitors’ Center, with just enough time to purchase some souvenirs. Our grandson had decided on a coonskin cap and canteen until he caught sight of some older boys playing with a wooden rifle. It seemed unwise to provide him with a club-like object he could use on his three sisters. Diane put her surgery at risk wrestling him down as we left the gift shop.
We were all exhausted and more than a little dehydrated when our daughter buckled the kids in her van. One child was saying she had to throw up and the boy was still crying, as we left them. In the grand scheme of things; a pretty good trip.
Orginally appearing in the Southern Indiana News Journal.