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Strawbery Banke, a museum where children are the guides and guests

Have you ever dragged a reluctant 10-year-old through an ''important'' museum , wondering how to whet his interest? As the words of the guide's lecture float somewhere above your son's head, the only question the lad asks is a whispered, ''Mom, when can we eat lunch?'' Perhaps the following is a solution.

Children as tour guides for children. It is the keystone of a new program at Strawbery Banke, the historical waterfront neighborhood in Portsmouth, N.H. The kickoff date was June 28.

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Over 30 local youth, aged 9 to 14, have signed aboard the ''Porthole Gang'' as tour leaders, wandering jugglers, skit performers, contra dancers, and historical game leaders for visiting children. Behind the scenes, other Porthole Gang members are mounting exhibits, including Strawbery Banke's Opening Exhibit for 1982, ''Children of the Past.'' Some are creating an authentic early New England garden.

Thirteen-year-old Bill Clifford, leader of the ''Jolly Jugglers,'' comments, ''It's hard to get kids interested in history, but a lot of them want to learn how to juggle.''

He explains that juggling is appropriate at Strawbery Banke, because minstrel men who brought the news from town to town in the early days of America often did juggling acts.

''It's not as hard as it looks,'' Bill comments. ''You start with one ball, then build up to two, then three.'' The young performer - who admits to being a bit of a ''showoff'' - expects to teach the visiting children how to do a Basic Cascade with three tennis balls.

Bill was one of the youths who helped Bill's mother, Barbara Clifford, who is Strawbery Banke's membership director, brainstorm ideas for the new program. Another was 14-year-old Emily Klotz.

''If I had the choice, I would live a hundred years ago,'' said Emily, who is one of the young tour guides, or ''docents,'' who will lead one-hour tours geared to children. Emily finds that, working at Strawbery Banke, she has a chance to ''really look at the stuff'' and ''find out things I never could find out on a tour.'' She wears an 1850s long dress, a shawl, and white cap, and her tour might run like this:

''Buried Treasure'' tour starts with a display of pottery and glass excavated on Strawbery Banke grounds. Step 2 is a visit to the potter to watch him create the artifacts of tomorrow. Do-it-yourself time follows, in a simulated archaeology pit, pre-seeded with bits of ''treasure.'' Near the top of the sand will be 1982 artifacts - a bottle cap or a plastic cup. As the children dig lower, the items will be older (but not too valuable) bits of pottery or coins.

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''Buried Treasure'' ends up back at the ''lab,'' where children bag and tag their finds in proper archaeology style. A number of broken cups or bowls will be on display, taped together with pieces missing. The young archaeologist may find the bit of china that fits perfectly into the hole.

''Children's Work is Never Done'' is the name of another children's tour. After inspecting an 18th-century kitchen, the children go outside and draw straws for ''chores'' - such as hauling water, kneading bread, or working on a sampler. After chores are completed, the children can play 18th-century board games, such as ''Yankee Peddler'' - a Colonial form of Monopoly using characters such as a tinker and a blacksmith.

Michael Voll, 10 years old, and his sister, Layla, 13, were part of a group of a dozen children who mounted the exhibit, ''Children of the Past.'' Under the leadership of the Curator of Collections, John F. LaBranche, the children made all the decisions.

''I've really enjoyed it,'' Layla said. ''I've learned how to put an exhibit together.''

Layla and Michael, along with the other children in the group, researched the life style of early American children and chose appropriate items from the Strawbery Banke collection.

The children recorded each item as it was ready to be moved from storage to the exhibition hall. Then they physically mounted the exhibit, with a minimum of outside help from the staff.

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