Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Starting on a Higher Rung

Partial view of the Tree of Forts
Not so very long ago, when a new museum opened, it looked, well, not quite ready. Hand-made exhibits occupied a small left-over space. Passion, pride, and excitement somewhat compensated for what the exhibits lacked. Friends and optimistic supporters kindly acknowledged that, “given some time, this museum would get a few more things right.” This was certainly true for Madison Children’s Museum when it opened at its first site in the early 1980’s. We were scrappy, inventive, good with duck tape, and hopeful.

I began noticing a change when Milwaukee’s Betty Brinn Children’s Museum (BBCM) opened in 1995. From its exhibits, programs, staff, and even visual identity, this new children’s museum seemed as though it had been operating for several years. This wasn’t entirely surprising. BBCM’s founding executive director, Mary Ellyn Voden, drew on her significant museum experience as Director of Exhibits and Education at Children’s Museum of Houston that had been operating for 10 years and had opened a new building in 1992.

A new museum starting on a very high rung opened May 1st in Mankato, MN, located 75 miles south of the Twin Cities. The Children’s Museum of Southern Minnesota opened in a converted City of Mankato bus garage after 10 years of planning and growing.  I first met the two founders, Linda Frost and Mary Jo Hensel in 2005. Early childhood educators and friends, they
formed a board, joined ACM, and incorporated in 2006. The next year they invited me to facilitate a planning retreat and develop a case statement with them. In early 2009, CMSM hired Peter Olson as executive director. Peter brought 6 years of operations, marketing, and exhibit experience at Minnesota Children’s Museum to CMSM’s start up efforts. In 2011 I worked with a board committee to develop a master plan that served as a framework for exhibit and experience planning.

While most new museums follow similar steps, this museum has done so while thinking big, building community connections, being very intentional about the small and the beautiful, and keeping children at the center of their vision. 

Mankato is a community that believes the prosperity it has enjoyed comes from the regional resources–the river that connects towns and people, sandstone quarries, and productive agricultural land–and the resourcefulness of its inhabitants. This narrative threaded through the city’s 2007 economic development plan. It has informed CMSM’s vision and framed its approach to funders. It has become infused throughout the Museum and its experiences.

Thinking Big
CMSM has been thinking big from the start–not expressed in inflated language or high square footage ,but as a roomy vision that fits its community. CMSM has seen itself since the beginning–and more so with time–as extending the community’s prosperity to its children through a childhood rich in play and opportunities, as a children’s museum.

When CMSM decided how to build local awareness and learn to operate a children’s museum, it opened its first Play Lab in 2010 in a temporary, long-term space. Play Lab was a location, a state of mind, and an expression of the Museum’s interest in learning how exhibits and experiences play with the Museum’s audiences and how audiences play with exhibits. Play Lab was also where CMSM premiered TapeScape in 2011. A twisty, tubular crawl-through landscape, Tapescape is constructed from plastic shrink-wrap and packaging tape stretched and woven around an L-shaped steel pipe structure (32’ L x 24’ W x 9’ H). CMSM’s Tapescape was the first of this type of temporary installation that has since been installed in several other museums.

If anything indicates that CMSM thinks big, it’s probably the new Tree of Forts climber introduced at the opening. This multi-story tree supports numerous tree forts of different designs and materials that are connected by vertical, horizontal, and angled rope climbers and ladders. The tree bursts through the building’s roof, opening into a kind of tree fort high aloft and with a view of the river and city. The Tree of Forts rolls fantasy, childhood memories, physical challenge, and surprise for children and adults into one amazing structure. Climbing through it myself, I met toddlers and grandparents and every age in between climbing, sliding, slinking, and discovering.

A Strong Sense of Place
CMSM has deeply and thoughtfully grounded itself in southern Minnesota. In making choices, it has infused experiences and environments with a strong southern Minnesota flavor. Massive sandstone blocks from a local quarry enclose the Quarry Zone creating a very real sense of being in a quarry. Mounted on the wall inside, an historic 12’ circular quarrying saw blade seems to be poised for cutting stone. The combination of stone and blade creates a feel of authenticity with a hint of danger.
Play Porch, for infants, toddlers and preschoolers to 3 years, is completely at home in Mankato. The detailed ornamental scrollwork, porch posts, and creamy yellow clapboard are copied from the childhood home of Maud Hart Lovelace, author of the Betsy-Tacy children’s books. The books, the house, the map of Deep Valley–Mankato in 1905–are part of the town and the childhoods of parents and grandparents visiting with their children today.

Local references are integrated throughout the building and exhibits. They are embedded in the expansive farm scene mural showing local crops and in alternative uses of farm materials like stock tanks, corrugated metal panels, and barn board. Regional crafts such as quilting and sewing are visible in the hand-made quilt that features southern Minnesota landscapes. High up in the rafters sits one of the recognizable millions of cats taken from an illustration in another local children’s book author, Wanda Gag. In every area of the museum, placed-based and historic references help tell their own stories. They invite conversations and elicit memories from parents and grandparents about quarrying, farming, and building tree forts.  

Visible Community Contributions
The importance of place is also reflected in the visibility of community connections, forged through the Museum’s planning and now contributing to what it offers. Like the hand-made quilt that traveled to the very first fairs and festivals CMSM attended, connections started early and have become integral to CMSM’s identity. The Toddler Committee made up of area early childhood educators has worked on the Play Porch for 7+ years.  Community carpenters built prototypes for the market and the quarry at Play Lab. Four hundred pieces of produce hand sewn by volunteers fills the wheelbarrows and bins of the farm and the market.

Indications that CMSM intends to continue to engage the community are apparent. A sign in the Ag area invites input for an indoor/outdoor new ag exhibit with, “What do you want to learn about modern agriculture?”

Worth Discovering
A wholehearted commitment to giving children something worth discovering is apparent throughout the Museum. There is not only the Wanda Gag cat in the rafters, but there is also a secret passage into the farmyard through the crawl-through log in the farm mural.  A message that wood comes from trees is carried by the steps spiraling up the Tree of Forts. Each tread is made from a different tree, its name burned in–Boxelder, Ash, Elm, Poplar, Maple.

CMSM knows children scour their world for information, are fascinated by small details, and notice often-overlooked features. The Museum has been deliberate and generous in making sure there are abundant opportunities for play, exploration, and discovery. Multiple mailboxes stand at different heights. Because children will feel and see details, the mailbox interiors are textured and patterned. Mailbox doors open and open-and-close at both ends suggesting games and extending exploration and play with others. 

Beauty as well as interesting details and novel materials invites investigation. Area artist Malia Wiley painted the farm scene mural in Grow It and included a mother and child and recognizable flowers and herbs. Liz Miller’s mixed media installation Preternatural Prairie Mirage floats overhead among the rafters. Children working with fabric artist Amy Sinning sewed and dyed 2,100 fabric willow leaves that hang–and detach from–the tree in the Play Porch yard. Laser cut steel railings carry a prairie grass motif designed by Ellen Schofield along the mezzanine where the Whiz Bang STEAM area is located.

CMSM has opened with a loud, wonderful, and long-awaited roar. I have no doubt that planning and refining will continue. This is a museum that knows how to discover ways of engaging children and their families, enriching childhoods, and strengthening connections with southern Minnesota.

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