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Children's museums are growing up as a venue for commercial sponsorships.

Following the lead of art and science museums, some top children's facilities are teaming with national sponsors to underwrite touring exhibits, marking a reversal of children's museums' traditional opposition to such sponsorships.

The Children's Museum of Manhattan, for example, currently is conducting a four-year tour of its "Seuss!" exhibit, courtesy of retailer Dayton Hudson Corp., whose store locations dictated the tour's route.

"Body Odyssey," opening at the Manhattan museum next month and sponsored by Merck & Co., will go on a national tour next year.

Elsewhere, the Children's Museum of Houston is in discussions with a major package-goods marketer about sponsoring an exhibit that may tour internationally.

TOUR CAN COST $100,000

A touring exhibit by a children's museum can cost as much as $100,000, and many museums are interested in joining forces with sponsors to cut costs of such projects, said Andrew Ackerman, executive director of the Manhattan museum, who also heads the Association of Youth Museums.

"It's something that's been building for several years," Mr. Ackerman said, "but the timing is finally right."

Visitors, however, may have a hard time detecting the sponsor of a children's museum exhibit.

"We make the sponsor visible, but in a very subtle way without any direct product marketing," Mr. Ackerman said. "We will never turn museums into marketing zones."

Sponsors' names appear on small signs near the entrance to each exhibit, with no other promotional references, he said.

Merck will take kids inside a giant human airway in the "Body Odyssey" exhibit to learn about asthma, but there will be no marketing of its asthma remedies.

Marketers nevertheless are very eager to get into children's museums, whose educational exhibits draw a broad audience.

"Children's museums have extremely high credibility," said Tammy Kahn, executive director at the Houston museum, "and we refuse to endanger that with overcommercialization, but there are a number of ways marketers can sponsor

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