Exploring art, history and science during a day at the museum

Item photo by Kolleen Long Self-guided tours are easy with the maps handed out at the visitors desk of the Reading Public Museum. Guests are free to wander all three floors of the museum, although photography in some areas is prohibited. Visits to the museum are also free to Hamburg-area residents who check out the passes kept at the Hamburg Public Library, 35 N. Third Street, Hamburg.

Regular stops to the Hamburg Public Library on North Third Street are a part of our family’s summer schedule, and while waiting to check out our pile of books and DVDs last week, I decided to also take advantage of the free passes to the Reading Public Museum available to any cardholder. Our next Fun Friday adventure was born.

The Reading Public Museum, located at 500 Museum Road, Reading, was born out of the vision and collections of local educator Dr. Levi Mengel. Open to the public since 1929, the museum’s grounds also include the Neag Planetarium and a beautiful 25-acre Arboretum, both of which require an additional entrance fee. Tickets to the museum itself are available at different costs for adults, seniors and children.

As we walked the short distance from the shaded parking lot to the front entrance, we enjoyed a sampling of outdoor sculptures. Our favorite was Ant X by Susan Cochran, massive metal ants just opposite the entrance. A number of groups (including ours) posed for quick pictures atop the ants before heading inside.

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The museum itself did not disappoint. We explored all three floors, finding displays on natural science and local history as well as ancient and world cultures. In the art galleries, we encountered works by masters like Degas, Warhol and Wyeth. The museum also has exhibits ranging from whimsical (such as The Art of Seating: a collection of unique and historical chairs) to instructional and interactive exhibitions geared toward children.

Our whole family enjoyed areas where we could literally grasp a piece of history, such as a display comparing medieval chain-mail with modern military gear. We were inspired to plant a three-sisters garden like the Native Americans and impressed by the detailed design of medieval swords and helmets Throughout our self-guided tour, we discussed what makes “things,” like Pennsylvania Dutch furniture or a complex tangle of plastic discs, “art.”

A lover of all things bright and unique, my nine-year-old loved the modern art room. She also was impressed with a traveling exhibition on electricity. In this area, we explored the history and science behind the electrical items we take for granted. We also pushed buttons, pulled levers and otherwise interacted with this relatively recent marvel.

My eleven-year-old lingered in the Kindig family’s Longrifle Collection and also enjoyed building a unique structure in the Citiblocks atrium. Here, low tables surrounded by bins of slim wooden blocks invited exploration; booklets of sample designs, displays of complex Citiblocks structures and framed architectural feats inspired guests. This display tied into another visiting collection, designs and sketches of Frank Lloyd Wright entitled Architecture of the Interior.

“Discovery Stations” are sprinkled throughout the museum, inviting youngsters to apply what they are learning. My daughter happily stamped animal footprints in a natural history display; her brother joined her in writing their names in hieroglyphics amid displays on ancient Epypt. Did I mention this station was alongside a display of an authentic mummy? The kids were equally fascinated and grossed-out by the shrunken head in the North American Indian collection.

Thanks to our free passes from the library, our trip to the Reading Public Museum was free. This made the driving distance (over 20 miles one way) more palatable for our budget-friendly Fun Friday. While we considered buying tickets to the planetarium show (our library pass also scored a dollar-each discount off the regular price), we opted instead to head to the gift shop. With a budget of just $3 each, the kids settled on vintage postcards as well as an obsidian arrowhead and a beautiful shard of colored agate. Our total bill was under five dollars, making this Friday adventure a complete success.

As we headed out to the car, the children were already comparing some of the displays they had just seen with those in one of our favorite films, “Night at the Museum.” We decided to look at renting this title, along with books on electricity, modern painters and longrifles, on our next visit to the Hamburg Public Library.

For more information on the Reading Public Museum, including hours and complete ticket prices, visit readingpublicmuseum.org or call 610-371-5850. You can find information on the Hamburg Public Library, part of the greater Berks County Library system, at www.berks.lib.pa.us/sha. Special science programs are scheduled throughout the summer in Hamburg, and school-age patrons are also invited to take part in the summer reading program, now through Aug. 16. For details, call the library at 610-562-2843.