I stood in the corner of the Charlie Chaplin Room, next to a bench made out of drums and an oversized mirror, and felt the blood rushing to my face. In just a few seconds the guide would ask me to make a funny face as he had asked all the other people in the room. And even though I am an adult and the rest were children, the task was still daunting.
The five- and six-year-olds sitting in a makeshift circle on the floor took the challenge in their stride. Squinty eyes, monkey faces and stuck-out tongues sent the participants into a trill of giggles.
From the Charlie Chaplin Room the group was led into one of four other spaces in the Israeli Children’s Museum’s “What Is Funny” exhibition.
Housed in the At Eye Level Center, the new show hosts kids aged three to nine in an exploration of humor.
Since the opening during Succot, the center in Holon has hosted dozens of school groups and hundreds of private guests.
“The idea is to have fun and laugh but also to understand why things are funny,” explained Tali Shemer, director of the At Eye Level Center. “We work a lot with exaggeration, confusion and opposites, for example.”
One of the great successes of this exhibition, which switched out last year’s “We Connected” and the previous year’s “Tzazim” exhibitions, is the way in which the activities allow children to feel good about being silly.
As part of the activities in the Charlie Chaplin Room, the children watch clips from silent films starring Chaplin, then act them out. Although there were a few reluctant performers, their gentle and skillful guide persuaded all the kids to have a turn playing either the bear or Charlie in the reenactment. Afterwards, the guide asked his group how, without words, they knew what Charlie was feeling.
“From his face,” shouted one pigtailed girl.
“From how he moved his body,” offered a little boy.
Exposing youth to Charlie Chaplin is one of the many ways that At Eye Level is making fun educational.
“One amazing thing that has happened since we opened is that I’ve been getting phone calls from parents saying that their children now want to watch Chaplin’s movies at home,” smiled Shemer.
Next door, another group used the multimedia center’s advanced computer consoles to create animated characters. Every few minutes, a guide directed the participants’ attention to the front of the room, where the kids’ creations strode across a big screen.
In the gallery space, which Shemer explained was the hardest to tackle in the designing of “What Is Funny,” the children considered a blown-up photograph of a dog wearing a Superman costume. Their guide asked why the image was funny.
“I don’t think that’s funny,” said a confident youngster.
“That’s great. Because what one person thinks is funny, another doesn’t. Great job,” responded the guide.
Later, the group did a voiceover performance for a sculpture of a traffic jam, shouting complaints and inner thoughts of the drivers.
“The gallery is so important because it is often the first experience that these kids have with a museum or gallery environment. Thanks to the guides and to the amazing pieces we have there, the kids really get what’s going on in there. I see them understanding and connecting with the art,” said Shemer.
In the adjacent Creation Room, the groups were introduced to Orit Bergman’s book A Fantastical Day with Frooster and Friends. The illustrations in the book feature lively hybrid animals.
Sitting along low tables, the children used stencils to make their own beastly mixes.
In the theater, which seemed to be a popular favorite, the participants met Pagliaccia the Clown. In a short, one-woman circus routine, Pagliaccia tamed lions and jumped through hoops of fire. Following her performance, Pagliaccia helped the kids dress up as clowns, confusing shirts as skirts, neckties as shoelaces and gloves as hats. Shrieks of joy rang through the audience as Pagliaccia taught one brave volunteer how to calm a stuffed lion.
In the theater, as in every room, the guides led their groups with patience, kindness and refreshing lightheartedness.
The accompanying teachers and parents chuckled heartily while snapping shots on their phones.
That said, the exhibition is in no way a free-for-all. Over and again the guides assured their students that the best way to have a good time was to give respect to those around them. Even if these statements were not new to them, the joyful environment seemed to allow the message to sink in.
“So far, this exhibition has been a great success,” said Shemer. “It’s a very easy subject to relate to.”‘What Is Funny’ will run through the end of summer 2015. Tours are available in Hebrew, English, Spanish, Portuguese and Russian. For more information, visit ww.childrensmuseum.org.il.