Without a Shadow of a Doubt

This story was published June 24, 2005, during an internship at Richmond.com.

Everyone is familiar with the popular children’s story, Peter Pan. Though it’s a favorite of mine, I always disliked Peter’s dealings with his shadow. For starters, he’s irresponsible enough to lose track of it, but then he tries to reattach the thing with a bar of soap. I remember thinking, “What a dweeb. Everyone knows that you can’t lose your shadow and there’s no way you could stick it back on with soap.” I might even have tacked on an exasperated, “Duh,” and a put-upon sigh. (I was a pretty flavorful kid.)

Even though Peter was lacking a few ounces of gray matter, he managed to hit upon an interesting aspect of human nature – people’s fascination with their own shadows. The Children’s Museum of Richmond is looking to cash in on kids’ interest with the new exhibit, ” Shadow Play ,” which will be officially unveiled on Saturday, June 25 at 10 a.m.

Funded by a grant from the Verizon Foundation, “Shadow Play” is an interactive exhibit that uses technology to produce digital representations of nature that play off children’s shadows. A segment of the exhibit was featured as a fantasy gift in the 2003 Neiman Marcus Christmas Catalog, where the caption read, “It’s about the ‘wow’ of capturing the majesty inherent in nature and giving you the chance to revel in it.”

What does this all mean? Why would anyone want the chance to revel in the majesty inherent in nature? Is a shadow really cool enough to be a fantasy gift? I, too, was a doubter. And then I got a sneak preview of “Shadow Play.”

When I walked into the darkened room in the Children’s Museum, I couldn’t see what all the secrecy was about. Then everything came alive. The floor seethed with three-foot children; the walls danced with their ten-foot shadows. Kids swarmed in packs around four large screens where brightly-colored images rolled, swelled and poured. As I got used to the darkness, I noticed the intricate connections between the projectors hanging from the ceiling and the cameras attached to the screens. I also noted that the neon images on the screens were interacting with the children’s shadows.

One screen showed a swarm of butterflies. They flitted from corner to corner in disarray, but when a shadow hit the screen, the butterflies settled on it. Most kids struggled to stand still long enough for the insects to land, but the effect of a butterfly perched on your shadow’s nose or eyelashes was well worth the effort.

Another screen had neon-colored blobs that moved like amoebas, squirting and swimming along. You could push them with your shadow and sometimes, if they ran into another blob, they joined forces and changed colors.

The third screen depicted about 20 marbles. Oversized and delicately colored, the marbles rolled back and forth across the screen. Kids herded them into a corner, smacked them into each other and grouped them according to colors. Beware the twist, because as soon as they were grouped, the colors changed to a new hue and the sorting began again.

The most popular exhibit was one in which a stream of liquid sand poured from the top of the projector, reacting with the children’s shadows as if they were solid. Thus, if a child held an umbrella, the sand skated off the edges, and if the umbrella was turned upside down, the sand built up inside it. The best part of this screen was that the stream of sand could be redirected, meaning you could pour it on someone else’s head, usually without them knowing. (The exhibits are engrossing — at one point, I found that I’d been standing for ten minutes with my nose pressed to the screen, desperately trying to squish two amoeba blobs together.) Claire Mehalick , exhibit coordinator of the Children’s Museum sympathized with me: “The effect is so captivating that we think the parents will want to jump in and play as much as their children will.”

Before I previewed “Shadow Play,” I envisioned kids making shadow puppets with flashlights and finger dolls. But after I saw the exhibit – nay, interacted with the exhibit – I was charmed. Never mind the cool graphics, this exhibit will teach you something about yourself. And as its creators query, “What’s a more natural extension of yourself than your own shadow?”

I suggest pulling a Peter Pan and flying to the Children’s Museum of Richmond to play with your shadow. I promise, once you start, you’ll realize that soap is just unnecessary.

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