|Minnesota Children's Museum today|
Should we focus on opening our museum in a permanent site with the space and amenities we really want or should we open sooner in a smaller site and assume we’ll move later?
This is one of the most frequently asked questions from groups starting a museum. Mostly I hear it from children’s museums, but it is no different for virtually any new museum. One would think that being asked this question repeatedly over 30 years that I, and other museum planners, would have a good answer. Nope. There are no simple answers to this question. In fact, no single answer could fit every, or even many, museums’ circumstances.
The question itself reveals the complexity and various trade-offs involved in making a decision with far-reaching implications. Realities of capacity and readiness must play a role in whether a museum is able take on a large, permanent home or is better suited to grow site by site. Often opportunity and even serendipity have a deciding, if invisible, hand in what site shows up, where, when, and with what strings. Inevitably, the relativity of time distorts the meaning of permanent. Three years is forever in the life of a 5-year old organization but merely a pause in a 30-year organizational journey.
Whether a museum operates with no walls, borrowed walls, or permanent walls, in the end each answers the question of it first site its own way. In my experience starting in an unbelievably small space, moving onto a somewhat bigger second space, and then landing in a good-sized third or fourth space is not unusual. Madison Children’s Museum where I was involved during its mobile years and its first two spaces has grown through multiple moves as has Minnesota Children’s Museum where I worked in its second and third sites. Growing site-by-site aptly describes how more than a few established museums have grown.
• Austin Children's Museum (TX) operated as a museum without walls from 1983 to 1987 when it moved into a 5,000 square foot (s.f.) space. Ten years later it opened in a 20,000 s.f. space in downtown Austin. In May 2012, the Museum broke ground for a 40,000 s.f. building in a mixed-use development northeast of downtown and in 2013, it became the Thinkery.
• Bay Area Discovery Museum (Sausalito, CA) opened in a 2,500 s.f. pilot site at a shopping center in Marin County north of San Francisco, in 1987. In 1991 the Museum relocated to a 7-1/2 acre campus at Fort Baker (under the Golden Gate Bridge) and occupied 21,000 s.f. In 1993 and 1999, additions increased the space to 31,000 s.f. and then 31,500 s.f. New construction on an entry building with classrooms and performance space, improvements on interior spaces, and development of exterior play areas took place between 2003 and 2005 increasing indoor s.f. to 52,000 plus 1.84 acres of outdoor exhibits.
• Chicago Children’s Museum opened in the hallways of Chicago Public Library in 1982 and moved to a 7,000 s.f. space in Lincoln Park in 1986. A move to a 21,000 s.f. space in North Pier followed in 1989. The Museum opened in its current home of 57,000 s.f. at Navy Pier in1995. The Museum continues to expand at its site at Navy Pier.
• Explore & More Children’s Museum in East Aurora (NY) opened in 1994 with 500 s.f. of exhibit space in a school and added 500 s.f. more in 1997. In 2000 the Museum relocated to a 6,500 s.f. space in an office-park building in a residential neighborhood. Currently planning is underway for new construction of 25,000 -30,000 s.f. of space in a multi-use development at the western terminus of the Erie Canal in downtown Buffalo. (Opened in July 2019)
|Madison Children's Museum's first walls|
• Madison Children’s Museum (WI) shifted from traveling exhibits in public venues to a 500 s.f. basement space in the Wisconsin Academy of Science, Arts and Letters in 1980 and was open on weekends and school holidays until 1985 when it moved into a 5,000 s.f. space in the garden level of an old factory building at the edge of downtown. In 1991 the museum opened 8,000 s.f. of space in a renovated bank building on State Street. Twenty years later, it moved 58,000 s.f. in a renovated a 1929 Montgomery Ward Building right off the Capitol Square.
• Minnesota Children’s Museum opened in 1981 in a 6,000 s.f. space in the Itasca Warehouse along the Minneapolis River front. In 1985, it relocated to an 18,000 s.f. historic railroad building midway between Minneapolis and St. Paul. In 1995 the Museum moved into a newly built 65,000 s.f. building in downtown St. Paul. Recently, the Museum announced a 14,000 s.f. addition to its current building and reconfiguration of interior spaces. (MCM reopened with 10 new exhibits in 2017.)
|Madison Children's Museum 2012|
The earliest spaces these museums called home were modest. Some were so small or incidental–like the hallways Chicago Children’s Museum occupied–that they were not even measured. Some early spaces received minimal preparation and others were renovated. Getting from a first space to a “permanent” home can take 10 years or 30 years. As these timelines illustrate, even when a museum is in its “permanent” home, its physical footprint is likely to change by growing and reconfiguring space. With time, its community footprint will undoubtedly grow and carry greater potential for increased impact. Facility and site changes are a reality; they reflect museums’ responses to changing contexts and to serving visitors whose interests and priorities change.
Site by site growth is not the only model for growing a museum. There are fewer, but increasingly more, museums that open “full-size” in a permanent home. Betty Brinn Children’s Museum (Milwaukee, WI) opened in a new 25,000 s.f. space in 1995 without incubating in a previous site. Creative Discovery Museum (Chattanooga, TN) opened in a new 42,5000 s.f. building in 1995. Stepping Stones Museum for Children (Norwalk, CT) opened in a new 19,000 s.f. building in 2000 and opened a 22,000 s.f. addition in 2010.
In 30 years, the arts, culture, and education landscape where museums position themselves has changed across the country. Children’s museums have become more familiar in towns and cities and are relatively established in the lives of American children and childhoods. These days, making the case for a children’s museum or science center doesn’t have to start with an introduction to an unfamiliar museum concept.
With the growth of museums, the start-up and expansion process has consolidated and become somewhat formalized. A group starting a museum will often find and identify their own “benchmarks,” museums in communities of similar size or with a similar vision; they will know their histories and growth. Sharing and developing resources for starting museums have also occurred on several fronts. The Association of Children’s Museums published Collective Vision in 1997. It sponsors an annual emerging museum conference and launched Collective Vision On-line Tool Kit in 2011. The Mid-Atlantic Association of Museums has offered an annual Building Museums symposium. In 2012, Minnesota Historical Society published Building Museums: A Handbook for Small and Midsize Organizations by Robert Herskovitz, Timothy Glines, and David Grabitske.
Navigating Site Questions
The site-growth question is not only common, but is also bound up with other long-term strategic choices a museum faces at an early stage in its development when it has few procedures and precedents for guidance. Site questions will always interact with larger questions of a museum’s vision, process, and position. Site and facility are more tangible ways for a board to approach larger, more abstract issues of mission or what the museum is and will become. The relative concreteness of a site’s size, its address, and related costs can offer a kind of comfort in searching for a site compared to exploring intangibles like experience, quality, or learning value.
Finding a first site–or perhaps any site–also requires distinguishing among size-related considerations like location, quality, or vision. For some museums, questions of site and facility are actually a proxy for other issues like fundraising goals (modest or ambitious?); personal or professional relationships in the real estate, construction, or development sectors; or values related to diversity and access. Finally a sense of urgency to find a site can be so insistent for founders and board members that it dominates the other business of starting a museum, overshadows other possible ways the museum could pursue growth, and at times actually derails a museum project.
Learning from Experience, Proceeding with Confidence
There is no formula for finding the right site at the right time in a relatively simple process. A few guidelines do emerge, however, from scanning the experiences–successful and otherwise–of other museums that have wrestled with finding a site.
• Vision: Maintain a roomy vision for the museum, even if it will take a long time to physically grow into that big vision. Keep the vision.
• Discuss. Engage in lots of lively discussion about site and size. Bring new questions and new information to these discussions. Be honest and respectful in discussing the museum’s capacity to successfully raise funds, create an outstanding experience, and effectively operate a site.
• Evaluate. Develop a really solid set of site selection criteria to help frame what is required of a site and to compare sites. Revisit the criteria periodically because circumstances change. This does not mean changing the criteria every month. It does mean bringing new information, perspectives, and questions to the criteria to test, refine, clarify, and strengthen them and the candidates. This builds a strong, shared sense of what they mean–and don’t mean–for longer-term and newer board members. When the real site decision comes up, things can move very fast.
• Compare. Build a strong list of promising sites well informed by an understanding of the real estate market, neighborhoods, zoning issues, and the health of other culturals. Visit the sites. Always–always– look at multiple sites and compare and contrast.
• Realism. Be realistic about the museum’s challenges and capacity. Be aware of committing to a larger facility than the museum will be able to support financially and will have the capacity to operate well. At the same time, avoid frequent moves. Relocating is demanding. It takes a lot out of a museum staff; and it can be challenging to bring visitors along to a new location.
• Setbacks. It’s not unusual to find an “ideal” site that then falls through. In hindsight, that site turns out not to be as good as it seemed at the time: the area didn’t take off or a site of a better size came along.
• Caution. Even the best-managed site processes can become enmeshed in controversial issues that initially seem minor. Be alert to the early signs of a pubic fuss arising about a site, especially if the museum is associated with it. Contact museums that have had to navigate similar situations and learn from their experiences.
• Opportunity. Keep an eye out for opportunity. Listen for the knock.