More Than a Museum ; No Longer Just about Exhibits, Children's Museums Raise Education Levels and Become Rallying Points in Communities

By Ross Atkin writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, October 4, 2000 | Go to article overview

More Than a Museum ; No Longer Just about Exhibits, Children's Museums Raise Education Levels and Become Rallying Points in Communities


Ross Atkin writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


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. …

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