The latest Back Gallery exhibit at the Virginia Discovery Museum is not what people expect to find in a children's museum. In fact, the folks at the Smithsonian Institution, who created New Harmonies: Celebrating American Roots Music as part of their Traveling Exhibition Service, wouldn't even consider VDM as a venue for a long time. The core exhibit is, after all, designed to educate adults about America's musical heritage, with lots of words on portable partitions positioned at a grown-up's eye level.

But VDM director Peppy Linden wouldn't take no for an answer. "We have such a rich musical community here in Charlottesville," she says. "And we knew our staff could create hands-on features that would speak to kids. We just knew it would work."

Linden's persistence paid off. The exhibit, accompanied by a plethora of live performances at venues all over town, does indeed work— for kids of all ages. 

The exhibit itself offers a variety of ways to explore the music. While parents and older kids peruse the maze of partitions bearing images of musical giants such as blues guitarist B.B. King, folk singer Bob Dylan, and the queen of gospel, Mahalia Jackson, wee ones go right to the heart— or maybe it's the soul— of the exhibit. They run right through that maze (which is all part of the fun) to find the prize in the far corner: a mock-up of a rural front porch. They sit right down, pick up the guitar lying next to the rocker, and start making their own music. 

Another chair holds a child-sized accordion. In the corner is a mandolin. There are spoons to play, a washboard, a big old jug– all real instruments that real people once used to create the musical roots of modern blues, country, bluegrass, and more. 

Around another corner is a radio studio where budding artists can step up to the microphone— just like, say, Loretta Lynn at the Grand Ole Opry— and hear their performance on the old-fashioned radio. Costumes are also available, so performers can take the stage in style. 

The front porch and the radio studio are among the locally created interactive elements augmenting the Smithsonian's beautifully presented and informative displays that include sacred songs, blues and country, folk revival music, and ethnic dance traditions.   

But it's the sound that makes music, after all, and there's plenty of it. Press a button to hear the celebration of the spiritual, the down and out of the Delta Blues, the kick-up-your-heels of a Klezmer clarinet. The best part, though, is the live performances— 17 of them over the exhibit's six-week stint— by both local and legendary artists that let kids young and not-so-young really get to know their roots.

A full calendar of New Harmonies performances can be found in The Hook's Culture section under Kids and Music. The New Harmonies exhibit is at the Virginia Discovery Museum now through December 4. Museum admission $4/members free. East end of the Downtown Mall. 977-1025.