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Da Vinci at the Tech

We went to see the Leonardo da Vinci exhibit at the Tech Museum (http://thetech.org/) in San Jose last weekend. I had heard it was amazing, and I hadn’t really thought about preparing for it. I think the Tech would do families a good turn by posting some information about what kids should know going into the exhibit.
Both of our kids are interested in mechanics and building, so they had that going for them. Also, our son, as a toddler, had been to Italy and had gone inside the cathedral in Florence. He doesn’t remember it, but that offered us a link to the exhibit from the first room. If not for that, we might not have gotten further.
This is an exhibit heavy on “show” and light on “tell.” I have to admit that I felt rather stupid when we walked through the first large room of the exhibit. It was completely devoted to Filippo Brunelleschi and the dome of the cathedral in Florence. I finally had my “aha” moment when in the rather small, light print on a wall next to one of the items exhibited, they mentioned that da Vinci came to Florence to apprentice under Brunelleschi. I felt less stupid when my husband, who had gone to park the car, came up to me and said, “So why is all of this about Filippo Brunelleschi?”
The great strength of the exhibit is all the working small-scale models that they have of the many machines designed by da Vinci and others working on large-scale building projects of the era. The kids just loved cranking the machines and watching them go. Beside each of the small-scale working models is a full-scale wooden model (which is not operable). It was cool to have the hands-on ability to work the small machines, but we had to use our imaginations for how it translates to the large mechanisms.
I realized too late that although I’ve been planning to start on it, I hadn’t yet done a study of simple machines with my daughter. We’d done it with our son in first grade, when it was clear that it would be fascinating to him. (I’m guessing that if public school curriculum requires this basic study at all, it’s later when the kids won’t find it nearly as engaging.) But that was three years ago, and we had to refresh his memory on the go as we looked at each machine and how it worked. For our daughter, we had to explain how things like inclined planes worked as we came to them.
I think they both would have understood the beauty of these machines a lot more if we’d prepared them. Some suggested discussion topics: If you had to move a giant stone column from lying horizontal on the ground to vertical, not using modern machines, how would you do it? If you wanted to have a milling device that could change directions even though you only cranked it in one direction, how would you do it? If you made birds’ wings out of wood and canvas, strapped them onto your body, and jumped off a cliff, would you fly?
The overwhelming weakness of the exhibit was its lack of perspective about da Vinci’s art and the time he was living in. The Brunelleschi room did have a fair amount of information about the Renaissance, but it would be worth brushing up on the magnificent achievements of the era, and setting the scene for kids who haven’t studied it, before you go in. I found most of the posted information not very helpful (and it was printed in such small, light type on the walls that I had to wait in line to be able to put my face up to it to read it!).
A scanning of the relevant Wikipedia pages beforehand would help with the background. I’m guessing there must be a great website about the Renaissance for kids out there, but I haven’t found it. (Leave a note for me if you have!) I know the library is equipped with picture books. My kids have checked out a great book about inventors that we can’t seem to find the title of. But they have a couple of others that look great, one about Renaissance inventors and one about da Vinci inventions you can build yourself.
They recommend about two hours in the exhibit, which is a bit long for kids. Ours did fine (I think it took us about an hour and a half), especially because they knew we would go to the “design your own roller coaster” exhibit afterward! If you haven’t been to the Tech with your kids, I highly recommend it. It’s best for school-age kids, but there is plenty of interest for younger kids with a dedicated parent helping them.
And on another note: San Jose is the best place to get excellent Vietnamese food, which appeals to many a picky child. We went to the exhibit with bellies full of noodles and it was most lovely. Hanoi’s Corners, highly recommended.

Posted in Parenting.


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