Beth Whisman, Children’s Discovery Museum
Walking through an empty children’s museum, it’s easy to spot the exhibits that need work. Finding the time and space to fix everything without interrupting guests too much is another story. In July, the team at Children’s Discovery Museum in Normal, Illinois, suddenly had plenty of time.
After first closing our doors to visitors in March 2020, we planned to reopen during the summer. We spent weeks planning and investing in new sanitation equipment, adding air filters, and changing operations protocols. Then, Illinois officials surprised everyone with a last-minute rule change that forced all hands-on exhibits to remain closed. We went from a 60-day shutdown to a 200+ day closure … and counting.
Despite present limitations, fortunately we are able to repair and upgrade exhibits and plan for the future even as peer institutions are fighting to survive. Fifteen years ago, the museum’s founders strategically partnered with the Town of Normal to become a catalyst project for its downtown revitalization project. The town supports the museum’s overhead and owns the building. After laying off forty part-time workers and cutting spending, this partnership allows remaining staff to keep planning and working.
Before the pandemic hit, the museum’s nonprofit foundation had announced plans to fund a new medical exhibit. In fall 2019, local health experts gathered to help us decide the exhibit’s learning objectives. Each of them had their own goals that included social-emotional health, specialty areas of medicine, and disease prevention. But even with their broad range of health expertise, they all agreed on the No. 1 health lesson they wanted visitors to learn: “Wash your hands.”
It seemed almost simplistic at the time, but a year later it has become a centerpiece of the exhibit. We changed a digital handwashing game into an actual working sink to allow visitors to wash their hands while they play. Additional plumbing expenses were considerable, but we felt the upgrade was necessary.
The shelter-at-home order delayed fabrication and our fundraiser to raise money for the exhibit turned into a virtual event. Still, the project had community support. The creative challenge of updating content and working with a remote team to engineer complicated pieces kept our staff and board focused, and we did our best work in years. Healthy Me is a light at the end of the pandemic tunnel. It provides a new experience for our museum members and visitors to look forward to as they wait for the museum to reopen.
Healthy Me also includes a tele-health interactive with two cameras and screens that encourage role playing. We targeted this topic because remote technology is becoming vital for pediatric mental health in our region. Before COVID, we often had to explain the importance of helping kids become familiar with using screens to talk with healthcare providers. That isn’t a problem anymore.
Other features include an ambulance, a lab with microscopes, a digestion maze that ends with a wall of Whoopee cushions and facts about bodily noises. The exhibit is now complete. Until we are able to reopen to the public, our foundation board is using the space to develop existing and prospective donors. Small groups in masks can take tours and learn about our future exhibit plans.
Several of our “original” exhibits and our Luckey Climber are showing their age and need to be replaced. During Zoom design sessions with Spencer Luckey in April and May during the travel moratorium, he and our skeleton crew talked with local architects and engineering firms to establish our vision and budget. The redesign includes important COVID-revealed upgrades, such as selecting materials that are easier to clean and improving access for staff to reach the nooks and crannies.
The silver lining of this experience is that our staff has much stronger ties now. We discovered hidden skills: our education manager showed a critical eye for construction drawings and our membership director redesigned traffic flow. Our exhibits manager helped build STEAM activity kits for remote learning. Our whole team had to trouble-shoot design and budget gaps to get exactly what we wanted for Healthy Me and the Luckey Climber.
The Children’s Discovery Museum will reopen when this crisis ends. We will welcome back visitors and members with our usual high standards. Just as important, we will reemerge with a stronger vision, a better sense of our value, and exciting exhibits that will inspire the love of learning through the power of play!
Beth Whisman is the executive director of Children’s Discovery Museum in Normal, Illinois.