The Children's Museum is all grown up. Behind the scenes, it has worked hard to become one of the leading suppliers of exhibits that travel to similar museums around the country.
Picture a construction zone in primary colors: Children don hardhats to stack foam bricks until they teeter. Another group sends the bricks skyward, via a bright-red conveyor system that teaches cooperation and coordination. At a nearby drafting table, kids use triangles and rulers to make architectural drawings. The Minnesota Children's Museum is always buzzing with creative scenes such as these.
What these imaginative kids don't know is, just two floors down, a cadre of grown-ups is engaged with a similar exercise. Mondays through Fridays, in the museum's basement workshop, a team of hardworking employees busily designs and builds the organization's wondrous exhibits. The exhibits department includes prop specialist Lisa Conley, who spends her workdays stitching costumes and dolls for the museum's beloved anthill.
Not far from Conley's chaotic worktable, a fabricator hammers away at a towering tree, another at a tiny wooden house. A part-time scenic painter sweeps in to lend the exhibits their cheerful colors.
Along with Boston Children's Museum and the Children's Museum of Indianapolis, Minnesota Children's Museum has become one of the primary suppliers of exhibits for the national children's museum market. "We have 11 exhibits on the road right now," says Kirstin Nielsen, exhibit development manager for the Minnesota Children's Museum. One of the more successful is "Curious George: Let's Get Curious," a show that encourages tinkering and exploration. Created on-site in 2007, "Curious George" has spent five years traveling to 28 cities nationwide. It finally returns to its Minnesota home May 26.
According to the Association of Children's Museums, the children's museum represents the fastest growing segment of the nonprofit museum sector. This accounts for much of the frenetic energy in the basement workshop.
Nielsen says her team used to be responsible for developing just one new exhibit every two years. With demand on the rise, they picked up the pace. In the past year, the workshop has generated three new traveling exhibits for the national market.
Another testament to growth in the children's museum sector: the Minnesota Children's Museum recently secured Legacy Amendment funding to launch a satellite location 80 miles south, in Rochester. Nielsen and company just assumed the additional responsibility of populating that environment, mostly with small traveling exhibits such as the geometry-heavy Go Figure! and the physics-oriented Ball-o-rama.
Public libraries represent another opportunity for the Minnesota Children's Museum. A grant from the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services gave the museum funding to install multi-sensory educational exhibits in 2012 in three local libraries. Soon other libraries clamored for their own installations. "We have four more [library exhibits] in process," says Nielsen.
"Decentralized growth is now part of the museum's strategy," continues Nielsen. "As the Minnesota Children's Museum, we were always looking for ways to expand our reach. And as our expertise has grown in the area of creating exhibits, it seemed like the logical next step, especially when we were having such success with the library programs."
That means grown-up pressures for the creative folks in the workshop. But that doesn't mean the exhibit-builders have stopped having fun. Like the exhibits born there, the workshop remains as magical a place as ever, says Nielsen. "Every now and then, a visitor or two will find their way to the basement," she explains. Once they step off the elevator, they're treated to an eyeful of costumes, woodworking tools and buzzing creative types. Says Nielsen, "It's so cool for these kids to see what we do."