A Whale of a Museum
West Hartford (Google Maps Location)
December 2008 and January 31, 2009
2019 Update: With the birth of our second son in 2011, we’ve been here many more times, but… I can’t update everything all the time.
I’ve said it many times on CTMQ: I’m fortunate to live in West Hartford. Being centrally located, it makes my task of visiting the hundreds of museums around the state a bit easier. My town also happens to be the home of one of the best children’s museums in the state.
In fact, it is so good it is simply called “The Children’s Museum.” No clever fancy-dan names for this place. Nope. Just “The Children’s Museum.” There is an irony in the name though… I think adults have just as much fun here as the kids. At least immature ones like me.
This page describes two visits with Damian – first with Hoang around the holidays at an evening work sponsored event and then with my parents a month later. Damian enjoyed it both times – and I’m sure we’ll be back to visit again soon enough. (Especially since I received a personal invite from the president of the museum, former state senator, former Lieutenant Governor, former West Hartford mayor, Kevin Sullivan.) It’s time I start using my pull a bit more.
One doesn’t even have to visit the museum proper to enjoy its most iconic feature: Conny the Whale. Standing sentry in front of the building, Conny is a 60-foot long life-sized replica of a sperm whale, which has watched over Trout Brook Drive for 30 years now. Visitors can walk inside the thing, which is a bit less exciting than it sounds. He is made out of a combination of iron and cement and was built in 1976 by volunteers from The Cetacean Society.
Perhaps it was the 15 degree day with blustery winds, but neither Damian nor I got much of a thrill from this thing. Though it must be noted that the Sperm Whale is Connecticut’s state animal. It also must be noted that the museum was founded in 1927 as the Children’s Museum of Hartford. On May 10, 2006, they changed the name to The Children’s Museum, with the tag line, “Igniting Curiosity Through Science and Nature.”
The Children’s Museum says they are the largest in the state and the fifth oldest children’s museum in the nation. Hartford Magazine readers have consistently voted it “Best Kid’s Attraction” since the poll’s inception three years ago. Man, it’s freezing out here… let’s go inside.
Where to go first? The museum allows visitors to choose their own path – and there are many from which to choose. As Damian makes the choices in our family, we checked out the upper level and the play room area first. This space is officially called Critter Crossing and it’s really fun. A little playscape, a bunch of little animals safely tucked away in cages (things like toads and frogs and lizards). Damian had a great time in there, but really… It’s like daycare but with a few animals. Who wants to see some REAL animals already?
They have a whole wing filled with animals – far more exotic than you’d think at a “mere” children’s museum. The United Technologies Wildlife Sanctuary displays over seventy exotic animals from around the world. Oh sure, you’ve got your required chinchillas and tarantulas, as well as some boas and iguanas.
But how about a swamp lynx and a caracal? The caracal (Caracal caracal) is a fiercely territorial medium-sized cat ranging over the Middle East and Africa. The word caracal comes from the Turkish word “karakulak”, meaning “black ear”. Although it has traditionally had the alternative names Persian Lynx and African Lynx, it is no longer considered to be an actual lynx. Instead, it is now believed to be closely related to the African golden cat and the Serval. Its ears, which it uses to locate prey, are controlled by 20 different muscles. The caracal is classified as a small cat, yet is amongst the heaviest of all small cats, as well as the quickest, being nearly as fast as the serval.
In addition, they house a baby Nile crocodile, a blue-tongued skink from Australia, three kinds of owls, giant walking sticks, tons of snakes and lizards… on and on. It’s really an impressive collection – You can view the always changing current list and learn about a few here. Far more than I’ve mentioned here.
Once Damian tired of the animals; or rather, once we tired of Damian staring at the animals, it was on to Excavation Station! I’m just going to excerpt from the museum’s website for this background information.
As you enter Excavation Station your adventure begins by walking through a cavern. Here you’ll see and be able to touch local rock specimens. If you’ve ever wondered what that rock in your backyard is, you’ll find out here. Next encounter excavation sites where you can help to scrape away the past revealing the remains of plants and animals of long ago. What will you find?
Be sure to look up at our 12-foot tall topographical map of Connecticut. Marked are locations of various rock and mineral formations with samples of the types of stones that can be found here. We suggest you explore these sites for yourself.
I like the fact that The Children’s Museum has redrawn our northern border and re-allocated Southwick to us. Which, by the way, someone noted that we’d have to rename it Northwick. Makes sense.
Think you have precious stones in your backyard? So did the pioneers as early as the 1700s. Connecticut’s geologic history has resulted in small amounts of metallic ores such as iron, copper, and platinum. Sift through gravel and sand for semi-precious stones in our sluice. The sluice replicates the process that pioneers used to mine for commercial ore. The running water takes the sand away and leaves the gems behind.
At the center of it all is a group of full-size dinosaurs, including a fierce, juvenile velociraptor and flying peterosaur swooping overhead.
Pretty cool, I must say. There is also a baby alligator here and some scorpions. Additionally, there are a lot more geology exhibits like how our country’s landmass formed and how geologists work and a miner’s panning station. This stuff is geared for kids maybe a little bit more advanced than Damian, so he didn’t stick around too long after getting his fill of the dinosaur.
The museum is a bit of a jumbled maze, so visitors can really take any path they wish. Just make sure not to miss Turtle Town. My dad – odd, I know – loves turtles. I was excited for him to see Turtle town as there are a lot of turtles here. In addition to the expected painted, snapping and box turtle, there are musk, Reeves, African mud, Mississippi map, and African helmeted turtles. And don’t forget the FIVE types of tortoises here as well (Leopard, Radiated, Russian, Red-footed and Sucata for those counting.)
I’d never heard of a “Reeves Turtle” either but get this; they are known as the “Golden Labradors” of turtles because they’ll walk up to their owners to be fed. And they’re from China, where no one named Reeves has ever lived. And where they’re probably food themselves.
After turtle town, we descended the stairs and checked out the region’s largest Foucault Pendulum. I’m not sure what defines “the region” but it’s something to note regardless.
Back near the museum lobby is the entrance to the Travelers Science Dome. No, the “Travelers” isn’t in reference to space and/or time travelers but rather the insurance company that used to be headquartered in Hartford who sponsors the thing. Out in the lobby is a full-on replica of a space station instrument panel (or something like that).
Anyway, opened in 1968, the Gengras Planetarium is now the Travelers Science Dome at the Gengras Planetarium. Their Spitz HB full dome digital projection system is state-of-the-art and the next generation in planetarium projection creating a brilliant seamless image over the entire 40-foot dome. Powerful images and digital sound surrounds the audience providing a “you-are-there” experience that is immersive and engaging. The digital planetarium seats 149 people under a 40-foot diameter dome screen and features live and pre-recorded shows.
They have a bunch of different programs and I’m sure they’re all cool. Unfortunately, the night we were there during the holidays, we were treated to an old-school program about how some religions and religious holiday were – or possibly/probably were – inspired by celestial events. It was pretty bad, but amazingly Damian sat through about half of it.
The next major room at The Children’s Museum is The Idea Zone. Says they: “Idea Zone is a science playground for your mind.” I’ll concur. It’s a really fun room full of a wide range of sciencey stuff that sure entertained me for a while. Most of the exhibits here are hands on interactive – but also for kids a little older than Damian. Kids like me.
There are things that show how gravity works and a large LEGO play area that shakes like an earthquake. A massive bubble maker, I’m sure, explains to kids all about the surface tension water. There’s also a little television “studio” that allows visitors to give a weather report on blue screen. Unfortunately, it was too crowded with other kids the first time we visited and didn’t work the second time. Though my mom sure tried for about 15 minutes. I never knew she wanted to be on fake TV so badly.
Also located in the Idea Zone is a HUGE kaleidoscope. It’s somewhat disorienting to stand inside it, but Damian thought it was cool. There’s a sign next to the kaleidoscope that explains all the geometry necessary for them to work. I’m probably the first person to actually read the sign in a year. (It has kid-friendly sentences like, “Did you know that when light is reflected from a surface, the angle of incidence always equals the angle of reflection?” Though, the momentum/kinetic energy thing 10 feet away had much more nerdy stuff. Note: “nerdy” is a CTMQ term of affection.)
I was very impressed with our town’s children’s museum. Really and truly. It’s gone through some ups and downs over the years, always threatening to leave its present location. I think it’s definitely here to stay for several more years at least and if you have kids, it’s worth the effort.
2019 Update: Yup, they’re “definitely” moving this time.
One final note: The Children’s Museum also runs the Roaring Brook Nature Center out in Canton as well – Damian and I visited that back in May 2008.