Nation of Innovation: Museums

Abigail Klein Leichman

My shaky hand had difficulty fitting the key in the door lock. Macular degeneration obstructed my vision, and my feet felt leaden as I tried to climb stairs.

At 53 years old, I am - thank God - hale and hearty. But I was at the new Dialogue with Time exhibition, where technology enabled me to experience what it's like to be old.

It is one of three interactive mini-museums housed at the Children's Museum of Israel in the Tel Aviv suburb of Holon, each of which utilizes a mixture of ingenuity and homegrown, cutting-edge technology to personalize and transform your museum experience.

Invitation to Silence

Invitation to Silence offers hearing people a rare opportunity to journey into a world where communications depend upon visual cues, body language, facial expressions, and gestures. It isthe world's only such permanent exhibition. The exhibit premiered in Paris and then came to Holon, where it stayed put in its own building on the Children's Museum campus, as a result of the unusually strong response from Israelis and foreign tourists alike.

Walking into the small auditorium in the anteroom of the intimate museum, you are introduced to your deaf guide and given noise-cancelling headphones. From that moment on, your group is plunged into utter quiet for 75 minutes. But your guide quickly teaches you how to communicate through expressions and gestures.

Dividing into teams, our group played an interactive game of matching up sign-language symbols and words that the guide swiveled around on a game board like Vanna White on "Wheel of Fortune." Using charade-like motions, we also assigned ourselves nicknames based on our interests or professions. I was amazed at how well we functioned. By the end of the hour we were able to order snacks in the silent canteen using only hand signals.

In this soundless world, we learned about the remarkable ability of other senses, working in tandem with the human brain, to compensate for lack of hearing.

Dialogue with Time

Having a personal connection with your guide is an essential component of each of the three exhibition experiences. At Dialogue with Time, the guides are all aged 70 or older. Ours was Emanuel, 73, a retired journalist, military man, and licensed tour guide, who regaled us with a photographic journey of his career and family as we sat in a small auditorium. And then - to our surprise and sometimes horror - Emanuel flashed the photos taken of each of us before the tour began, which had been doctored so each of us looked 30 years older. Interestingly, the individual audience members' reactions appeared to depend on their real ages. A couple of teenagers in our group appeared pleased by their virtual transformation; those of us in middle age gasped in unison to see the wrinkles and bags transmuting our projected faces; and a few seniors expressed relief that they wouldn't look all that different in the future.

Our group spent a good chunk of our 90-minute tour discussing the issues spurred by the interactive exhibits. In one, we were shown images of people of varying ages doing different jobs-for example, a 70-year-old jet pilot and a 22-year-old mayor-and had to vote electronically whether or not we thought a person of that age could do the job pictured. Each of us explained our vote and then engaged in a lively debate led by Emanuel. Afterwards we watched video clips showing, for instance, an actual 70-year-old commercial pilot.

At one point, Emanuel divided our group into teams to play a multimedia trivia game on aging. I was doing pretty well when suddenly he pointed to me and told me to go sit on the sidelines. I felt puzzled and a bit disappointed. After eliminating several others in the same way, he explained that the game is a device to let us feel what it's like to be forcibly retired, even when at the top of one's career. Emanuel himself had been cast out of the military at age 50.

Dialogue in the Dark

Pioneered in Germany in 1988, Dialogue in the Dark offers a journey of sensory discovery in total darkness. Visitors get a short briefing, a long cane, and a visually impaired guide (the museum is now Israel's largest employer of the blind), who guides them and their families/friends into a pitch-dark series of simulated rooms - a public park, a bustling city street, a food market, and a working café. At the end, the group converses with the guide about visual disability and coping strategies. Many participants have called the experience "life-changing." A friend who went recently described how odd it felt for a group of sighted people to become dependent upon a blind guide. "You build real bonds with both the guide and the others in your group, relying on one another for audible and tactile clues about everyone's position in the environment," she told me. "And when you can't see, your other senses seem so much sharper. For instance, in the city street area, I felt the vibrations of the cars. I don't think I ever noticed that before."

This cluster of experiential mini-museums at the Children's Museum is so in-demand, advance reservations are a must. You can request an English-speaking guide.

Design Museum Holon

Just as the Children's Museum complex put Holon on the Israeli museum map, three years ago the Design Museum Holon, designed by the renowned London-based, Israeli-born architect Ron Arad, put this Tel Aviv suburb on the international map.

Thanks to Arad's imagination, the Design Museum experience starts even before you enter the 40,000-square-foot building, as you are visually enveloped in its curving sweep of red- and orange-hued Cor-Ten steel alloy. A dark underbelly, meant to evoke a womb, supports the structure, leaving the two interior gallery spaces unimpeded by pillars. Natural light is played to interesting effect; a louvered roof above the upper gallery can be adjusted depending on the needs of the current museum exhibition. The upper and lower galleries are shaped like white boxes; no visual distractions deflect attention from the objects themselves. Just one exhibition at a time takes place here, and the museum closes for a few weeks in between.

Visiting last February, I walked through "Common Roots: Design Map of Central Europe," an exhibit showcasing furniture, lighting, decorative, and utilitarian design from 10 FSU countries (Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia). Their designers are reviving nearly lost crafts, such as glassblowing, weaving, and furniture making. My two favorite objects were a garden chair nestled in a weatherproof cover that closes over it like a pod and an embroidered linen bread basket with an unusual adhesive - starch. The exhibition, created here, is now traveling through Europe.

From March 19 through May 4, the Design Museum will host "Lady of the Daisies," focusing on the iconic Israeli Gottex swimsuit brand established by fashion designer Lea Gottlieb. Ordinarily, the galleries display works of international designers with some Israeli participation, but during the period of Israeli Independence Day, Israeli design takes center stage. In the summer, Ron Arad will mount the first Israeli retrospective of his own works, following successful shows in New York, London, and Paris.

Make sure to stop into the Design Lab, where Israeli design academy students spend a semester honing a particular skill with a mentor - when I was there, it was Hebrew typography - providing a wonderful window into Israel's active process of design.

MadaTech: Israel's National Museum of Science, Technology & Space, encompassing Noble Energy Science Park

Want to operate Leonardo da Vinci's canal lock (revolutionary in his time and still used in navigating boats through narrow waterways)? Would you like to "fly" in a helicopter based on the principle of aerodynamics discovered by the 18th-century physicist Daniel Bernoulli? How about using Archimedes' heat ray to focus blinding sunlight onto approaching toy ships? You'll find all this and more at the Noble Energy Science Park on the museum grounds in Haifa. In separate courtyards you can interact with working models of inventions conceived by the master inventors mentioned above, as well as those of Isaac Newton (a giant "Boyo" yoyo that works with gravity) and Pythagoras (a wheel that kids can climb on and rotate with their legs to move water around three sides of a triangle). A courtyard with Galileo's inventions is scheduled to open in the future.

In addition to the outdoor science park, MadaTech, built on the site of the Technion: Israel Institute of Technology's historic home, offers 600 hands-on exhibits and seven 3-D Cinematrix movies, "Odyssey into the Universe," on the evolution of the solar system; "The Road to Safety" (a "4-D" film that has the added dimension of sensory effects in the theater seats) accompanying an interactive exhibition on safe driving; and "Hocus Science Pocus," on the science of magic, among others.

The latter title dovetails with an exhibit called Magical Science, which reveals how magicians pull off classic tricks, such as sawing someone in half (it's all mirrors) or making a ball appear to hover weightless (a hidden airjet does the job). When the exhibit first appeared, the Israel Magicians Society worried that it gave away too many of its members' secrets. Actually, MadaTech's exhibit seems to have fed the public's appetite for magic. Last year, Israeli television stations debuted several new shows on magic and mentalism, and membership in the society's club for young magicians is skyrocketing.

An entire room of the science museum is devoted to a native Nobel Prize winner - Technion Institute Professor Dan Shechtman, head of MadaTech's academic committee. You can see the diary in which he recorded his discovery of quasicrystals - microscopic asymmetrical particles that can be used to strengthen metals and other materials. Crystals were thought to always be symmetrical, and it took years for the scientific community to acknowledge the validity - let alone the usefulness - of Shechtman's finding.

Palmach Museum

Tel Aviv's Palmach Museum tells the story of the pre-state volunteer fighting force through the eyes of seven young recruits as they train and then fight in the 1948 War of Independence. But instead of seeing static displays or glass-covered documents, you enter a three-dimensional, multimedia environment that brings documentary materials to life.

Your 90-minute tour, which must be booked in advance and is available in English, begins in a memorial hall for the 1,162 Palmach soldiers who died fighting to establish the State of Israel. The final hour takes place in a revolving room, where you watch what happened to each of the brave souls you've met at the start and for whom you now feel a kinship.

For me, the kinship felt especially intense. My daughter and I had come to Palmach with Efraim, an old pal of my father's. As we walked into the museum, he looked at the mural of Palmachnik photos on the entryway wall and exclaimed, "Hey, that's Motti!"

He'd spotted a photo of one of his closest friends, a Palmachnik who'd served with distinction. Efraim immediately phoned Motti, who lived nearby, asking if he could join us. Unfortunately, the elderly Motti was not feeling well and could not come. This brought home the fact that the surviving Palmachniks were not going to be around much longer to tell their stories. As the day progressed, I felt grateful that a museum could so effectively keep alive the legacy of these heroes of the Jewish people.

I kept a hand on Efraim's elbow as we navigated a darkened series of rooms with uneven flooring, which simulated outdoor conditions. The first room transports you to Tel Aviv's Herzl Street in 1941 as people watch a newsreel reporting on the war in Europe - one of the events that prompted the formation of the Palmach. The second room simulates a eucalyptus grove at night, where you meet the recruits and their commander. In the next room they are training for difficult assignments, such as blowing up bridges and helping clandestine immigrants evade the British. When they hear the UN vote in favor of a Jewish state, and subsequently go into battle, you are drawn into the War of Independence, and when two of the recruits you've gotten to know fall in the line of duty, you'll be reaching for tissues.

The number of museums in Israel - currently 231 - is ever increasing. This past year the Architecture Museum opened in Haifa; next year the Women's Museum will open in that same northern city. For information about them in English, I recommend And this I guarantee: No matter how many times you visit Israel, you will always be able to find inventive museums waiting for you to explore and experience.