Children's Museum of Holon
The Aliens exhibit at the Children's Museum of Holon Photo by Daniel Tchetchik
Text size

A return visit to the Children's Museum of Holon, now celebrating its tenth anniversary, sparks ambivalent feelings, at least for this adult

Shortly after entering the train car that is part of the aliens exhibit at the Children's Museum in Holon, the youngsters began to pay rapt attention. They listened to the scary scenario the tour guide described for them, in which aliens had invaded Earth and taken over the car they were in - and for a brief moment did not question what they were being told. It seemed the young visitors, veteran "residents" of the kingdom of the imagination, simply immersed themselves in the experience. They watched with interest, albeit not real concern, as flashing lights lit up the spaces outside the windows and as other effects, reminiscent of those in a computer game or movie, took place around them. Meanwhile the guide explained that their train was being sucked up into a seething whirlpool of air while in the clutches of the enemy.

The heart beat may have increased a bit toward the end of the tour, when the visitors entered a device that resembled a space ship. According to the story presented, the spaceship was flying hurtling at an accelerated speed on its way to back to Earth, driven by a cute and somewhat scatter-brained alien, and meanwhile crashed into meteorites, icebergs and other obstacles with full force. Every time an imaginary object reached the window of the spaceship, the crashing and shaking were pretty convincing. The overly excited chatter of the guide, who was explaining what was happening, sort of like subtitles in a film, could have been done without. One participant described at the end of the flight a sense of pleasure and fear, "like at an amusement park."

But experience is one thing and lessons learned are another. First of all throughout the alien exhibit tour, which was enjoyable and carefully planned, there were activities that engaged the mind and also sparked the imagination quite a bit, but didactic presumptuousness dominated and threatened to ruin the fun. And a few minutes before the end of the tour, the guide gathered the children and explained again, in case they had forgotten, the "motto" of the exhibit. What was it and what were the children supposed to learn? In brief, that humans are afraid of aliens because we don't really know them; if we did, we wouldn't be afraid. The aliens are just a parable, of course, for beings who are different from us. Along the way, there were slogans displayed, such as "if you believe in yourself, you will succeed," "not everything is as it appears from the outside."

The feeling was that the children were being overwhelmed with unnecessarily with messages. The endearing guide established an excellent rapport with the youngsters and was a good actress. But if she had improvised a bit more, the whole ambience would have been less artificial.

Such is the ambivalence felt after a return visit to the Children's Museum, which is now celebrating its 10th anniversary. There is an abundance of creative thinking there as well as an understanding and appreciation of children and their world, plus the execution is excellent and the intentions are good. But it seems that the powers-that-be there don't trust the children and try to spoon-feed a social message to them. And that is a pity.

The Holon museum's didactic approach differs from museums aiming at a young audience, such as the Israel Museum's Youth Wing, the Science Museum in Jerusalem or the Madatech in Haifa. At the science museums in Jerusalem and Haifa, they try to broaden horizons and enlighten visitors about natural phenomena or give them some understanding of scientific phenomena, make them think and so on. At the Israel Museum's Youth Wing, they strive to develop an appreciation for art and to acquaint children with varied forms of artistic creation. Strictly educational sorts of messages are absent, and even foreign to them.

In addition, and perhaps this is the main difference, those facilities are living museums, which allow visitors to remain for a long time. The tours offered at the Children's Museum, however, last between an 1 hour and 45 minutes to 2 hours, and it is advisable not to do two during the same visit.

Visiting a variety of exhibitions in no predetermined order at a museum prompts to think in different directions and presents different contexts. According to a professional person who works at a local children's museum, the preset route and background story used as part of the rotating exhibitions that are featured in the aliens tour are somewhat thin and limiting.

In 2000, the opening of the Children's Museum was an important phase in the positioning of Holon as a cultural center for the younger generation. Over the years, the museum has indeed managed to make waves, largely due to the exhibitions it hosts on its premises.

Social messages

Apart for the aliens tour, intended for children aged 8-12, there are two other tours, or actually exhibitions, at the museum, that have become flagship attractions. Both provide unique and unusual experiences: "Dialogue in the Dark" simulates what life is like for the blind, while "Invitation to Silence" causes the visitor to think about what it's like to be deaf - what life would be without a soundtrack, as it were.

The museum itself has changed direction in the wake of the former exhibit, and today markets itself as an institution that is devoted to social programming. Among other things, it employs over 30 blind individuals and a similar number of deaf people, and it is to be applauded for this. Gil Omer, the museum's director, says that it was Andreas Heinecke, a German philosopher and journalist, who came up with the idea for these two exhibits six years ago and attended a seminar at the museum.

"Dialogue in the Dark," an exhibit that is also featured in museums in other countries, has become something of a phenomenon at this museum: In the six years it has been on in Holon, over a half million visitors have seen it. Furthermore, adults also come to see it and "Invitation to Silence" as well - whether parents with their children, friends or employees whose companies send them there. Despite the favorable reviews and excellent feedback, it should be noted that visiting "Dialogue in the Dark" is not for everyone, however. Some people who are overwhelmed by the experience have apparently left in the middle.

However, the two exhibits are indeed helping to dispel some stigmas. Apparently, the sensory and emotional experience has the power to open new modes of thinking and feeling - much more than any written text or more standard appeal to the intelligence. In a survey conducted by the Ministry of Social Affairs services for the blind, it turned out that over 90 percent of visitors to the Holon museum's "Dialogue in the Dark" felt it favorably influenced attitudes toward the blind. One boy who recently visited "Invitation to Silence" asked the guide at the end of the tour, in all seriousness: "Is it fun to be deaf?"