Even for top-of-the-line museums, historical periods can be extremely difficult to capture, particularly when the intended audience is children. The situation becomes especially thorny when the subject has some degree of sophistication; primitive man is a little easier to introduce to young people than periods studded with great thinkers and events. The medieval period is certainly no snap, but the curators at the Yeshiva University Museum have done a yeoman's job in illustrating the crucial role played by medieval Jewish traders in their current exhibition, Traders on the Sea Routes: 12th Century Trade Between East and West. Nothing works for kids like the hands-on approach; here this not only includes hands-on activities, but role-play involving costumes. Although designed for school groups — meaning that it relies heavily on educational facilitators to tell its story — the exhibition is also open to the general public. The public's version is necessarily scaled down (there's no costumed role-play, and the hands-on activities have to be managed between parent and child). But with such informative wall text, the visit might nevertheless prove a worthwhile one. Traders is a small show. The school group version begins with scale models of two ships typical of the time: a Venetian galley and an Arab dhow. (The 150-foot-long galley carried small bulk such as spices and gems; the 96-foot dhow was a heavier sailing freighter, with deeper holds to carry larger loads). Facilitators provide the exhibition's necessary background information, while advancing the ships manually along a channeled shelf beneath a pair of wall-size maps of medieval trade routes. Across from the ship/map wall, samples of jewels, spices and textiles are displayed in glass cases, providing a context for the exhibition's next step: a medieval Cairo bazaar. The small mock bazaar is installed in an adjacent room, along with a pillowed setting representing the study of Moses Maimonides (who worked in the gem business with his brother David before going into medicine and making his name as a philosopher). There is also a simple re-creation of the Cairo Genizah — a collection of more than 200,000 fragments of Jewish literary text, letters and everyday papers, considered, for various reasons, to be sacred, and which were housed in a special storeroom in Cairo's Ben Ezra Synagogue while awaiting burial. Students, wearing simple costumes, are given pouches and cards supplying them with their own identities. (Example: "I must make enough so that I can buy a house for myself and my dear wife — Ebrahim IBU Ya' QUB al-Udi — Trader in odoriferous wood"). The tables offer gems in their natural and refined states, spices, and samples of various fabrics; young visitors can sample the products, collect them in their pouches, and grind various spices. In the comfy Maimonides' study, they can view excerpts from the philosopher's writings and letters; the Genizah section, meanwhile, offers fragments of sacred documents kids can put together. If inclined, they can also make their own deposit to the Genizah's legendary collection. The exhibition is tailored for students in grades 4-6.
Info: Where: Yeshiva University Museum, 15 West 16th Street (between Fifth and Sixth avenues) When: Through June 2004. Hours: Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Sunday, 11am-5pm How much: Adults, $6; seniors and students, $4; children ages 5-16, $4; under 5, FREE Info: (212) 294-8330; www.yumuseum.org Note: Although Traders on the Sea Routes is designed for school groups, the public can visit the exhibition with curator Michael Cohn on Sunday, November 16, FREE with museum admission. An educational facilitator will also be available to the public during the museum's Hanukkah Winter Spectacular, on December 25, from 11am-5pm. There is a separate charge for this event. — Joe Lugara