Manhattan's Museum of Natural History has its enormous dinosaur skeletons, but the brand-spanking-new Maritime Explorium in Port Jefferson boasts its own appropriate skeleton: a huge, wood hull of a ship that is the centerpiece of the facility.
Since 2006, the museum had operated in the Port Jefferson Community Center next door. But now it has a permanent home in a historic brick harborfront building that used to be a chandlery -- that's boatspeak for a shop that sells nautical gear to outfit a ship for a voyage.
More than a dozen hands-on activities, some old, some new, can keep families occupied for hours, says Lauren Hubbard, Explorium vice president. "It's not big," she says of the site, "but there are so many little nooks to explore."
PLEASE DO TOUCH
Most activities offer three levels of play -- Deck Hands, Mates and Skippers -- to give children ages 2-12 a range of challenges. The "Wheel House," a computerized virtual tour of the Port Jefferson harbor designed for the Explorium, lets users "drive" a boat around the harbor. Deck Hands might just steer around. Mates might click on a building to read about it. Skippers might follow a short harbor tour.
"Rock & Roll" is a new exhibit that teaches about boat stability when loading cargo. Users place baseball-sized balls into 20 holes on a ship base in an order that keeps the "barge" from capsizing. "Zig Zag Zip," also new, demonstrates the importance of wind to a sailboat. A machine blows light, strong or gale-force winds at a model boat on a track; users maneuver the vessel and sails to catch the wind and move the boat.
ALL HANDS ON DECK
For the littlest sailors, a dinghy is filled with rice and dubbed the "Bailing Boat." Children use buckets to "bail," or can sift the rice to find stuffed orange octopi, blue turtles and red-and-white striped fish. "This always, always has a kid in it," Hubbard says. A "Signal Center" lets two captains use baskets and pulleys to send written messages from one "ship" to the other.
Brett Serxner of Port Jefferson recently stopped to peek into the new space with his two children, Madelyn, 3 and Matthew, 2, when the family was in the area to have brunch. But the kids were so eager to go in that Dad decided to let them check out the Explorium while Mom did errands. They wound up spending 90 minutes there, Serxner says. "The kids had a great time playing in the boat with the rice," he says. "They probably would have stayed longer. They didn't want to leave."
Decor includes brightly colored, triangle-shaped nautical flags, buoys, and buckets of conch shells and clamshells. Other exhibits teach knot tying, use of pulleys and more. "Every weekend is a different special activity," Hubbard says. A back porch with an expansive view of the harbor will allow the Explorium to set up water tables on warm days.
THEN AND NOW
The chandlery, owned by Port Jefferson and dating to 1897, had fallen into disrepair. "We were able to secure a historic preservation grant from the state. We got the building top-to-bottom restored," Hubbard says. Black-and-white photos of the owners -- J.M. & G.F. Bayles -- hang on the walls. In addition to weekend hours, the Explorium will offer a supervised drop-off program; after-school events; field trip opportunities and birthday parties. "Lots of wonderful people have donated time, money and expertise," Hubbard says. "This is just a great thing. Really fun."
WHEN | WHERE Grand opening 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday, 101 E. Broadway, Port Jefferson. Regular hours 1-5 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays
INFO 631-331-3277, maritimeexplorium.org
ADMISSION Free for grand opening; otherwise $5 a person for all ages