Thursday, October 31, 2019

A Really Grand Opening: Louisiana Children’s Museum

Part of a series on Growing a museum

Louisiana Children's Museum City Park (Photo credit: City Park)

When Louisiana Children’s Museum opened at its new location in City Park New Orleans on August 29, 2019, it was a celebration of joyous connections, a triumph of resilience, and a splendid gift to the area’s children and families. Opening the doors also marked the 14th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina which changed the Museum’s future.

Opening day at the cafe
In early 2005, Julia Bland, then and now, Executive Director of Louisiana Children’s Museum (LCM) invited me to work with her and her staff on a learning framework. This was part of a larger effort for LCM to strengthen its educational offerings and better serve children and families in the greater New Orleans area.

With the framework completed in May, the Museum planned to develop community-based programs for parents and children and an extensive set of field trip programs for school groups. Hurricane Katrina and the catastrophic damage it caused to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in August 2005, however, changed everything. As well as revealing new, urgent needs across the region, the storm exposed deep and long-present challenges facing children and families.

In a state and city known for being at the bottom of the list for positive indicators for children’s health, well-being, and learning, more and better programs for children and families alone would be an inadequate response. A bolder response was necessary, one that placed children high on the list of community priorities including a major investment in them and their futures.  

For LCM, the opportunity to rebuild the greater New Orleans area had a clear starting point: the region’s children.

Over the 14 years between Katrina and LCM’s 2019 opening, the Museum continued to operate on Julia Street in the Warehouse District. All the while, Julia, her board, staff, partners, boosters, architects, and designers from across the country created a new children’s museum for children 8 years and under, their parents and caregivers. Located on 8.5 acres at the edge of the City Park lagoon, the 56,000 square foot museum, a $47.5 million project, was guided by a bold vision, a response to the realities and challenges of living with water, and inspired by children’s potential.

A Bold Vision
A community thrives when its children thrive. Healthy, cared for children who enjoy varied and developmentally meaningful early experiences grow up to become responsible, caring adults. For this to happen, however, communities must invest early in their children, especially in their children who face multiple challenges and risk factors and limited opportunities.

A whole-hearted commitment to both the community and to children set the new Louisiana
Joyous musical and generational connections
Children’s Museum on a course to become an innovative social, cultural, learning resource for children and families. LCM would do this by making joyous connections with and among partners, ideas, children, and families. Along the way, it would find practices and approaches that would make the deeper ideas of the project visible, spawn other projects, and forge new connections.  

Early planning work began by cultivating collaborative relationships with community partners and players who, like LCM, shared enduring interests in children’s well-being. From grassroots community and civic groups, higher education, healthcare, and formal education, these partners focused on infant and toddler mental health, caregiver engagement, environmental education, early literacy, culture, heritage, and the arts. As the project proceeded, these partners contributed expertise, perspectives, and connections to new audiences. These areas also helped shape the focus of 5 exhibit galleries: Play with Me, Follow that Food, Dig into Nature, Make Your Mark, and Move with the River designed by Gyroscope, Inc.
The exhibit design approach began in 2011 with a visitor panel involving a dozen children, 5 to 10 years, their parents, and caregivers. This form of qualitative research that engages the same visitors at multiple points in the process brought children’s and adults’ perspectives into the project early in a way that informed and inspired subsequent design direction and choices. Using conversation, drawing, and photographs, the sessions focused on what was fascinating to children in exhibits at Julia Street, how parents and caregivers saw their child’s thinking and learning, and what was important and interesting to children about water in their everyday lives.

Recognizing that these conversations and drawings brimmed with what children notice and think, a practice of documenting children’s drawings and words was integrated into the whole project. In some ways, children’s words and drawings became the language of the project, expressed in experiences, the architecture, gallery graphics and text, wayfinding, and LCM’s identity.  

The building design also reflects the Museum’s openness to the community and connections to the site. Designed by Mithun, a Seattle-based architecture and planning firm, the skewed H-shaped building has two wings connected by a glazed atrium. Exhibits occupy two floors of one wing. The other wing is free and open to the public. Its programmatic spaces relate to health, early literacy, parent and teacher resources. Its gift shop and cafe, Acorn, serve children and families whether they are visiting LCM or City Park. A large shaded porch across the building’s front both invites the community in and connects visitors with the lagoon, nature, and the Park.

Living with Water
In a city that lives below sea level and a project born of flooding, the new Louisiana Children’s Museum is designed for water. Water, its presence in the life of the city and its children, is integrated into the building, landscape, exhibits, programs, and messaging.

Photo credit: Webb Bland
The building sits 5 feet above the ground, higher than the 4 feet that flooded City Park during Katrina. Situated at the edge of the lagoon, the building appears to hover above the water. A bridge across the lagoon is one of the entrances to the Museum. When visitors cross the water, they walk through an interactive fog sculpture by Japanese artist Fujiko Nakaya that spills out from the edge of the lagoon shrouding it and the bridges in a foggy, misty cloud every 30 minutes. A “floating classroom” rafts across the lagoon providing a close look at the water and wildlife.

The Museum is integrated into the local ecosystem. Its 47,000 square feet of outdoor exhibits include an edible garden, toddler nature play area, and native Louisiana plantings. Water runnels channel water around 26 mature live oaks spared during construction. A 15,000-gallon cistern collects rain water.   

LCM’s interest in growing a water- and environmentally-literate citizenry is apparent indoors as well.
Looking upriver from the Port of
New Orleans
In Move
with the River, a 100-foot long water table follows the Mississippi River from its headwaters in Itasca, MN through the Port of New Orleans to the Gulf of Mexico. Along its course, locks, dams, tributaries, and cranes for loading and unloading cargo help make local and global connections about the working river. In Dig into Nature, children continue investigating water, its ways, and Louisiana’s ecosystems in exploring a wave tank, sedimentation table, a pirogue, and bayou habitats.

While water plays a prominent role in LCM experiences, it is part of a larger set of locally-inspired and place-based experiences and relationships including food, music, art, and architecture. In Make Your Mark, sounds collected from across New Orleans are activated when a game pieces on a giant interactive chessboard moves. Children explore materials and art concepts in the art studio, the architecture of the Museum itself, local architecture, and elements of a resilient city.

In addition to featuring local musicians in the Jammin’ House and working with local artist Terrance Osborne on the shotgun house in Make Your Mark, Mr. Okra, a New Orleans vegetable and fruit vendor who sold from his truck while singing, is featured in Follow that Food. Besides Mr. Okra, bins of local produce, a grocery store, cafe, and family recipes for a traditional crawfish boil show how food connects family, friends, community, and the larger world.  

Children's words and drawings invite adults to
engage, play, care, and learn — in dialogue
Perhaps the most local experience and joyous connections, the relationship and interactions between infants and toddlers and their caregivers, are at the heart of Play with Me. Observing their child, following their interests in the Sensory Lagoon, or finding animals hidden in the Cypress Tree, the adult-child connection is fundamental to the experience. Across all of the galleries, “in dialogue” graphics introduced at the entry to the exhibits wing, invite adults to notice, ask questions, talk, and listen to create openings for their child’s interests and capabilities to shine through.

Inspired by Children’s Potential
A strong image of the child and their potential inspired LCM and its planning. Too often underestimated, children are, in fact, inherently capable. They are active agents in their own learning from birth and possess enormous potential. Valuing children’s natural curiosity, their openness to possibilities, readiness to play, and capacity for relationships, LCM committed at the start to taking the wealth of children’s potential seriously.

Early in the process, the planning team articulated an image of the child as:
• Caring and helpful
• Inquisitive and curious
• Imaginative and resourceful
• Engaged and playful

Prominent and visible throughout the project, this image informed design of exhibits and experiences, features of the building, development of the site, and graphics. With an image of the playful child and an understanding of play as essential to the optimal development of all children, play is encouraged throughout the Museum in opportunities for child-directed play and a rich array of loose parts. The caring station in Dig into Nature taps into children’s natural capacity to be caring and helpful as they examine and tend animals living in the park who have been injured. In fact, a firm belief in the child’s capabilities and potential has allowed the Museum to present complex and challenging issues related, for instance, to flooding, natural disaster, and injured animals, in a positive, playful context.  

Children's drawings provide way finding
and messages
Documenting children’s words and drawings, in the visitor panel and later projects, opened opportunities for the Museum to make children’s potential visible to them, their parents, caregivers, and educators, and to one another. Children’s words and drawings inspired the approach to dual language gallery graphics including introductory, instructional, and invitational panels. This approach is also direct evidence of children’s capabilities and remarkable understandings. It allows visitors to see the world through children’s eyes and brings additional meaning to the actual text and graphics that would otherwise be unlikely to be captured in adult words or photos. 
Even in a project of this scope, small details and gestures make big statements. At the entry of the building, four words writ large highlight the child ‘s capabilities to Engage, Care, Play, Learn. Throughout the building and site, children’s drawings are incorporated into wayfinding graphics. Their drawings identify the bathrooms, designate stroller parking, accompany people up the stairs. A child’s drawing of a crawfish completes the Museum’s new logo. Each and every drawing is credited to the child who drew it.

The new Louisiana Children’s Museum brims with joyous connections that are helping to build a thriving local ecosystem for children and families. Community partnerships that began early continue to grow. Varied experiences support children’s joyous connections with their caregivers, play, place, and nature. Multiple generations connect grandparents’ hopes and dreams for the children of New Orleans in the quotes throughout the building.

Visit and see for yourself.
In Make Your Mark, a boy builds a children's
museum and offers tours of City Park

The Sensory Lagoon in Play with Me

Teams: Gyroscope,Inc: master planning, exhibit design, graphic design; Mithun, architecture, interior design, landscape architecture; Waggonner & Ball, local architects; KubikMaltbie: exhibit fabrication; Studio Matthews: branding and wayfinding; Hands On! Studio: conceptual plan; Roy Anderson Corp.: contractor; Slover Linett: audience research; Vergeront Museum Planning: planning framework

Photos by Vergeront unless otherwise noted,

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