Sunday, October 29, 2006


In the “BG” days — before grandparenthood, I never thought very much about the role of children’s museums, but with grandkids you get to see a whole lot of things that you don’t remember or didn’t experience when your kids were small.

My better awareness of these fantastic destinations for fun and learning was enhanced because of the convergence of three things. First, my roommate on the Madison trip was Jon Mills, the president of the board of directors of our Kidzu Children’s Museum.

Second, we had a fantastic presentation on the Madison Children’s Museum by their executive director, Ruth Shelly. She told us about the wide variety of exciting programs that they offered, including participating in a unique partnership to provide free dental care to local children through its Body Shop health exhibit. She also made a very convincing case for how the museum enhances their downtown, but more on that later.

The third thing that happened was to see the Madison children’s museum on their State Street. I saw families walking around. I also saw people having their picnic lunch on the state capitol grounds either before or after a museum visit. And I smelled the freshly popped popcorn being sold by a vendor from a decorated cart across from the museum. It looked like plenty of kids — and their parents were into corn.

Did you know that in 1975 there were approximately 38 children's museums in the United States? Eighty new children's museums opened between 1976 and 1990. Since 1990, more than 130 have opened, and there are approximately 80 in the planning phase. Are you surprised to learn that children’s museums are the fastest growing sector of the museum industry?
Some local parents were tired of driving to Raleigh, Durham, Greensboro, or other locations for their kids to experience a quality museum experience. Therefore, as we are wont to do in these parts, their conversations resulted in an organized effort to explore the possibility of starting a children’s museum in our community.

It’s not surprising to learn that they discovered all sorts of obstacles and heard plenty from the corps of naysayers, but they formed their 501-c(3) nonprofit and tackled the tough task of finding a location. With help from Dana McMahan, the owner of the East Franklin Street shop The Laughing Turtle, they had a generously donated space for the museum. They hired their two full-time employees, and all systems were “go” for being a kid magnet.

Open since March, the museum expected to host 20 thousand visitors per year; it has hosted 19 thousand already. The board raised the necessary funds from individual donors and foundations to get off the ground and is now trying to raise more so that they can move to a permanent home.

Where should that permanent home be? Based on what I heard and saw in Madison, their home should be in a downtown, or as close as one can get. And it’s just not a Madison spin. The Reader’s Digest has a blurb on children’s museums in its November issue, and they observed that “more and more parents want safe havens that offers tots extra stimulation. And civic leaders see the museums as urban renewal anchors.”

The Association of Children’s Museums says that sixty-three percent of children's museums are located in urban areas while twenty-three percent are located in suburban areas. Only fourteen percent of children's museums are located in rural areas. And to top it all off, the association reports that seventy-five children's museums are flagships in downtown revitalization projects.

Communities where the museums are helping to revitalize their downtowns are on to something. Our children’s museum brings people downtown that might not otherwise come. They come by bus and car and seem to be able to park just fine. Visitors also take advantage of the restaurants and stores downtown. Parents and their kids are visible on the street and create a powerful image that offsets negative perceptions of the downtown.

Another benefit of being downtown is the closeness to UNC-Chapel Hill students. Kidzu has been blessed with having student interns, work-study students, and volunteers like those from the DKE Fraternity who come out early in the morning to help unload and load exhibits. Kidzu also has relationships with the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute and the UNC School of Education.

We have in Kidzu a real winner for our community, and especially for our downtown. I suspect that its board will permanently locate where they can find 10 to 15 thousand square feet of donated space — they now have around three thousand. They need a space and we want a vibrant downtown. Kidzu is already making ours vibrant. Let’s hope we can help it continue to be part of the successful revitalization of our downtown.

That will be a good thing!

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