Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh

February 12, 2011 — The first thing you should know about the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, PA, is that it does not, in fact, exhibit children. This knowledge is important and will save you from an awkward and possibly horrifying encounter at the ticket booth. Like Confucius said, if only one other person learns from my mistakes, they are worth it.

The museum is located at 10 Children’s Way and, like most museums of this sort, is completely for kids…lots of stuff for them to clamber on, interact with, and keep busy doing on those days when parents’ guilt at how much television they let them watch exceeds the level at which they’re normally comfortable. Which means anybody not in that situation should skip it for, I don’t know, let’s say the Robot Hall of Fame, just for hits’ sake.

However, Pittsburgh’s Children’s Museum has one thing worth fording through the seething mass of careening tots. Possibly a couple things, actually…but, like most things in life, that depends on your stance on Mr. Rogers.

When I visited about a year ago, the museum had a whole room dedicated to the preternaturally gentle PBS children’s show Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, hosted by Fred Rogers. In the room were various interactive child-occupiers inspired by the show, a castle and large trolley that kids can play in, a tree-shaped puppet theater, that kind of stuff. According to the website, though, they’ve apparently re-themed the room since then and spread the various Mr. Rogers' components throughout the museum.

So somewhere on display on the premises are some of the actual artifacts from the show. Like a pair of Rogers’ famous navy blue canvas sneakers and about half a dozen of the puppets from his fantasy world of Make-Believe: X the Owl, King Friday and Queen Saturday, Henrietta Pussycat, Daniel Tiger, Grandpere Tiger, and the terrifying Lady Elaine Fairchilde.

While it might seem like the Children’s Museum got a weird draft pick in the licensing lottery, turns out, the show was actually filmed right there at WQED studios in Pittsburgh. Rogers was born in one of the city’s suburbs and lived in the area most of his life until his death in 2003 at the age of 75. That’s right. Pittsburgh was Mr. Roger’s neighborhood. Kind of changes the whole show for you, doesn’t it? It also makes me imagine him in yellow and black face paint roaring at a Steeler’s game.

However, unless you’re the type to wear Mr. Roger’s shoe colors on your own face while watching old episodes of his show, I’d still suggest skipping the museum to the childless or child-apathetic …if it weren’t for the coffee table-sized artifact shoved under the stairs in their puppet room.

The room’s main feature is wall display of old marionettes that’s pretty cool in itself, but across from these is an actual Mystic from the 1982 Jim Henson fantasy film, The Dark Crystal.

Yes, it’s the movie that scarred us all in ways that we love to show each other when nobody’s looking. A movie so alien and fantastical that it makes just about every other fantasy seem pedestrian and trite. The movie that reveals the uncomfortable truth that all cinema should be 100% puppets.

I’ll skip talking too much about the movie, since I’ve done that before on OTIS when I got to see my first Dark Crystal puppet in person. In that case, the character was one of the vulture-like Skeksis. This was how the other half lived.

This particular full-body puppet was urSol the Enchanter, one of the Mystics who didn’t do much throughout the movie other than hum deeply and walk slowly, until the climax when they brought the party in what turned out to be a very long beer run.

You’d think having such an amazing piece of Henson memorabilia would make the museum adopt it as its mascot, stick it on a six-foot-tall pedestal in its own solarium, and project the movie 25-8 on an IMAX screen behind it.

Instead, it looks like they’re a little ashamed of it. Or at least uncertain of what to do with it.

As I mentioned, it’s shoved under a staircase below eye level, in an unlighted (at least when I was there), plexiglass box that’s really hard to call a display case since it’s more easily missed than Waldo at his most devious.

The small plaque attached to the smeared plexiglass was also criminally minimal, stating the character’s name, the movie, what it was made of, and that it was from Jim Henson. That’s it, kids. Now go look in the funhouse mirrors and pretend to learn about light refraction.

I mean, the character is inherently a sad-looking one, and seeing it in this mournful little setting with children running around paying no attention to it as it rotted away in its dark corner made me more emotional than Sarah McLachlan singing over footage of doomed puppies.

Still, it was thrilling to see this amazing piece of puppetry, and it makes me want to give them my best offer for taking it home…which, incidentally, is literally my best offer. I need money in my life. But I’ll take a Mystic.

I’m pretty sure I was supposed to make a cardigan joke somewhere in the Mr. Rogers’ section. I need to remember to go back and do that.