More than a museum

No longer just about exhibits, children's museums raise education levels and become rallying points in communities.

Children's museums are more than places to take the kids on a rainy day. They're quickly becoming indispensible to the families and communities they serve.

The importance of these institutions is clearly recognized, if start-ups are any indication. The Association of Youth Museums (AYM) reports that 100 new children's museums are in the planning phase, eager to join the approximately 200 that attracted more than 32 million visitors last year.

From the AYM's perspective, that makes children's museums the fastest-growing cultural institutions in the United States. And they're not being built just in big cities.

Providence, R.I., which has a population of 150,000, is a prime example of the trend of smaller cities and towns launching quality museums for children and their families.

"Almost all top-25 markets in the United States now have a children's museum," says AYM president Lou Casagrande, who is also president of The Children's Museum in Boston.

"Now we're seeing children's museums popping up in middle-size and smaller cities - as well as overseas. The movement is becoming increasingly global."

Boston, Indianapolis, and Brooklyn, N.Y., were early pioneers in the field. There wasn't much growth, however, until Michael Spock, son of Benjamin Spock, the renowned pediatrician, took over in Boston during the 1960s and brought new attention to the children's museum movement.

One museum in the works is in Lowell, Mass., an ethnically diverse old mill city undergoing a renaissance near the Massachusetts-New Hampshire border. The city enjoys many cultural offerings, but the late Paul Tsongas - a popular local politician, senator, and 1992 presidential candidate - felt that something for younger children was missing.

Nancy Stice has been guiding Tsongas's vision for a children's museum in Lowell. She is executive director of the facility, which has been on the drawing board for two years and expects to open its doors next summer.

"I'd say a children's museum typically takes three to five years to open, and often even longer, perhaps seven to 10 years," Ms. Stice says.

Part of the lead time is required to raise money. The average cost to build a children's museum, she explains, is about $250 a square foot.

Officials of the Children's Museum Lowell will economize by investing little in high-tech frills. Even so, building renovations and climate control cost a bundle, which is why the goal of the museum's fundraising campaign is $2 million.

Children have contributed $13,500 in pennies. "They are so excited that they are helping to build the museum," Stice says. "That's what makes a children's museum work, when it really becomes a community effort."

Children's museums took off in the 1980s, when they were rediscovered as good places for families and school groups, according to Sue Sturtevant, chief of education for the Museum of New Mexico and trustee of the Santa Fe Children's Museum. During her five-year tenure in the '80s as director of the Kohl Children's Museum in Wilmette, Ill., annual attendance soared from 18,000 visitors to 350,000.

"It was a time when as a society we were looking for something more for children," she says. "When families toured the country on vacations, they saw children's museums and thought, 'We need one in our town for our kids.' "

That certainly is a part of the reasoning in Lowell, which sits 25 miles from Boston and its world-class Children's Museum, yet in some ways seems far away.

"It's an all-day trip into Boston on the train and a lot of [lower-income] people here don't have cars," Stice says. "So it serves a purpose to bring a museum to this locale, where people will have easy access to it, and it will be affordable."

Keeping admission fees affordable ($3.75 per child and $4.15 per adult, as a national average) is key to attracting both regular visitors and donors' dollars.

"Certainly there are a lot of funders, both private and federal, who ask what percentage of your visitors are from low-income areas," says Janice O'Donnell of the Providence Children's Museum. "Museums can no longer be places for the educated elite, the already [culturally] initiated. To be viable, they have to make efforts to serve nontraditional museumgoers."

The hope in places like Providence and Lowell is that young people, whose parents have had little exposure to cultural institutions, will so enjoy children's museums that they'll become lifelong museumgoers.

Building a large constituency and fulfilling community needs are key factors in success. "There's often a lemonade-stand kind of exuberance and joy among the impassioned people who start children's museums," AYM President Casagrande observes, "but you can't impose a museum on a community. People learn quickly that opening a children's museum requires the whole community to sustain the vision."

Museums for kids are credited with forcing the larger museum field to pay more attention to visitor-friendly, interactive exhibits. Their stock in trade is not just things to look at, but things to do.

Sometimes children's museums are criticized for appearing to be little more than attractive play spaces. What they really specialize in, though, says Lowell's Stice, is "learning that's sort of disguised" - where learning happens at youngsters' own pace and in their own way.

Children's museums are more about trying on costumes, pretending to be pioneers, or playing with water than pressing buttons or reading computer displays. Open-ended, hands-on opportunities take precedence over "virtual" ones.

While such museums need to focus on programs and exhibits that attract children, they also recognize the important role adults play.

Ms. O'Donnell, the Providence facility's executive director, says children's museums "have to be valuable to adults because the kids don't take themselves there."

At Providence, Jim Sulanowski, a stay-at-home dad, sits watching his four-year-old daughter, Emily, as she builds a structure from magnetized plastic pieces.

Mr. Sulanowski enjoys what the Children's Museum offers him and his daughter, especially the weekly miniclasses.

"I take time to watch Emily, to see her learn something, to get excited when a bunny is put in her lap, or watch as a spider crawls over her," he says. "And to tell you the truth, I learn things, too."

Across the table in "The Shape Space," Joe Silva, a case manager with Mental Health Services of Rhode Island, sits with a 13-year-old boy under his supervision. Silva has a pass, and uses it often - an estimated 150 times in the past three years.

These men view children's museums as learning centers and valuable community resources.

"A really good children's museum always includes possibilities for adults to learn to play, as well as to converse with other parents and their children," says Ms. Sturtevant. "They have to be multilayered experiences."

r For a directory of children's museums, see www.aym.org.

"Now we're seeing children's museums popping up in middle-size and smaller cities - as well as overseas. The movement is becoming increasingly global."

Boston, Indianapolis, and Brooklyn, N.Y., were early pioneers in the field. There wasn't much growth, however, until Michael Spock, son of Benjamin Spock, the renowned pediatrician, took over in Boston during the 1960s and brought new attention to the children's museum movement.

One museum in the works is in Lowell, Mass., an ethnically diverse old mill city undergoing a renaissance near the Massachusetts-New Hampshire border. The city enjoys many cultural offerings, but the late Paul Tsongas - a popular local politician, senator, and 1992 presidential candidate - felt that something for younger children was missing.

Nancy Stice has been guiding Tsongas's vision for a children's museum in Lowell. She is executive director of the facility, which has been on the drawing board for two years and expects to open its doors next summer.

"I'd say a children's museum typically takes three to five years to open, and often even longer, perhaps seven to 10 years," Ms. Stice says.

Part of the lead time is required to raise money. The average cost to build a children's museum, she explains, is about $250 a square foot.

Officials of the Children's Museum Lowell will economize by investing little in high-tech frills. Even so, building renovations and climate control cost a bundle, which is why the goal of the museum's fundraising campaign is $2 million.

Children have contributed $13,500 in pennies. "They are so excited that they are helping to build the museum," Stice says. "That's what makes a children's museum work, when it really becomes a community effort."

Children's museums took off in the 1980s, when they were rediscovered as good places for families and school groups, according to Sue Sturtevant, chief of education for the Museum of New Mexico and trustee of the Santa Fe Children's Museum. During her five-year tenure in the '80s as director of the Kohl Children's Museum in Wilmette, Ill., annual attendance soared from 18,000 visitors to 350,000.

"It was a time when as a society we were looking for something more for children," she says. "When families toured the country on vacations, they saw children's museums and thought, 'We need one in our town for our kids.' "

That certainly is a part of the reasoning in Lowell, which sits 25 miles from Boston and its world-class Children's Museum, yet in some ways seems far away.

"It's an all-day trip into Boston on the train and a lot of [lower-income] people here don't have cars," Stice says. "So it serves a purpose to bring a museum to this locale, where people will have easy access to it, and it will be affordable."

Keeping admission fees affordable ($3.75 per child and $4.15 per adult, as a national average) is key to attracting both regular visitors and donors' dollars.

"Certainly there are a lot of funders, both private and federal, who ask what percentage of your visitors are from low-income areas," says Janice O'Donnell of the Providence Children's Museum. "Museums can no longer be places for the educated elite, the already [culturally] initiated. To be viable, they have to make efforts to serve nontraditional museumgoers."

The hope in places like Providence and Lowell is that young people, whose parents have had little exposure to cultural institutions, will so enjoy children's museums that they'll become lifelong museumgoers.

Building a large constituency and fulfilling community needs are key factors in success. "There's often a lemonade-stand kind of exuberance and joy among the impassioned people who start children's museums," AYM President Casagrande observes, "but you can't impose a museum on a community. People learn quickly that opening a children's museum requires the whole community to sustain the vision."

Museums for kids are credited with forcing the larger museum field to pay more attention to visitor-friendly, interactive exhibits. Their stock in trade is not just things to look at, but things to do.

Sometimes children's museums are criticized for appearing to be little more than attractive play spaces. What they really specialize in, though, says Lowell's Stice, is "learning that's sort of disguised" - where learning happens at youngsters' own pace and in their own way.

Children's museums are more about trying on costumes, pretending to be pioneers, or playing with water than pressing buttons or reading computer displays. Open-ended, hands-on opportunities take precedence over "virtual" ones.

While such museums need to focus on programs and exhibits that attract children, they also recognize the important role adults play.

Ms. O'Donnell, the Providence facility's executive director, says children's museums "have to be valuable to adults because the kids don't take themselves there."

At Providence, Jim Sulanowski, a stay-at-home dad, sits watching his four-year-old daughter, Emily, as she builds a structure from magnetized plastic pieces.

Mr. Sulanowski enjoys what the Children's Museum offers him and his daughter, especially the weekly miniclasses.

"I take time to watch Emily, to see her learn something, to get excited when a bunny is put in her lap, or watch as a spider crawls over her," he says. "And to tell you the truth, I learn things, too."

Across the table in "The Shape Space," Joe Silva, a case manager with Mental Health Services of Rhode Island, sits with a 13-year-old boy under his supervision. Silva has a pass, and uses it often - an estimated 150 times in the past three years.

These men view children's museums as learning centers and valuable community resources.

"A really good children's museum always includes possibilities for adults to learn to play, as well as to converse with other parents and their children," says Ms. Sturtevant. "They have to be multilayered experiences."

*For a directory of children's museums, see www.aym.org.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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