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Museum toys put a twinkel in their eyes

A smiling father, baby strapped to his chest and a preschooler clutching his hand, strolls through the museum shop that serves both the Children's Museum and the Museum of Transportation in Boston. The preschooler senses something is up and asks his father what is coming.

"What's coming?" the father repeats as he looks happily upon the treasure trove of books, toys, and educational games. "Well, Christmas time! What else do you want to know?"

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Museum shops are an alternative for gift givers who want to avoid crowded stores filled with battery-operated toys that fail to trip the imagination of children. A sampling of shops and catalogs shows a wide variety of gifts that are educational, beautiful, and fun.

Various museums offer a wide range of ideas. Science museums, such as the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry in Portland, sell items that focus on scientific exploration -- microscopes, astronomy books, and equipment for junior rock hounds. Art museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City expose children to technical materials that artists use, such as a calligraphy set for beginners.

The museum shop at the Children's Museum in Boston has ethnic toys, including African puppets and masks, Asian dragons and dolls, and Guatemalan clay banks. And since the shop is shared with the Museum of Transportation, trains, planes, trucks, and boats are well represented. A book on cars of the 1950s sits on display next to a yellow Checker cab teapot and bright yellow cups with handles that look like tires.

Gifts from museum shops can spark interest in what the museum offers. A shirt at the "Small Shop" in Boston's Museum of Fine Arts has a picture of an Egyptian mummy case captioned "All wrapped up in the Museum of Fine Arts." The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which will soon have a Viking exhibition , sells both a full-color Viking ship kit that a child can assemble from cardboard and a book on myths and legends of the Vikings.

"We look for multimedia experiences to get the child involved in the exhibit before it happens, or as a follow-up if he or she has already seen it," says Joan Cavanaugh, manager of education marketing in publications at the museum. Each subject in the Metropolitan's shop has several related toys. A dragon headdress kit that a child can sew is offered, along with a book about a dragon that eats dreams and a wooden dragon puzzle.

Ms. Cavanaugh rejects the idea that museum gifts are too sophisticated for young children.

"These are beautiful things that can be used by children," she says. "Whatching the children in the shop, you are convinced that they like these toys. They are very confortable here."

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Leta Stathacos, manager of the gallery shop at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, N.Y., agrees.

"The best thing is to watch the children on the floor with the books," Ms. Stathacos says. "The response is wonderful." But she admits that it has only been recently that museum shops have gone much beyond selling more than post cards, poster reproductions, and a few books.

"We feel we have a definite role to play, because we are in the forefront as an extension of the museum experience," she says. "We carefully think out why we carry what we carry."

Prices at museum shops range from very reasonable to fairly steep. The shop at the Museum of Modern Art in New York includes some highbrow gifts for creative children, such as Bauhaus blocks for $22 and a specially designed puzzle of various animals that lists at $45.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art sells a conductor's baton for $1.75, a three-dimensional cardboard medieval town at $9.95, or a $60 miniature sterling silver cream pitcher for an elegant doll's house.

A few museums have gift catalogs for those who can't visit their shops. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, at 255 Gracie Station, New York, N.Y. 10028, Distributes its "Presents for Children" catalog. The Museum of Modern Art 1980 gift catalog is available for $1 from MoMA, Box 1220 Radio City Station, New York, N.Y. 10101. The Smithsonian Institution, Box 2456, Washington, D.C. 20013 offers a free catalog; allow a month for delivery.

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