A growth spurt for children’s museums


A photo of the Maryland Science Center's Dinosaur hall called "Dinosaur Mysteries." (Courtesy Maryland Science Center)

It’s nearly noon at the Maryland Science Center in Baltimore, and lunchtime noises include bells, whistles and clanging. Early do-it-yourself types are clustered in groups at “The Shed,” which specializes in workbenches, tools and bright ideas, like dismantling a vacuum cleaner.

An announcement heralds the imminent explosion of a trash can in the Harbor Lobby, and visitors head past the treadmill, the pinwheel thingy and the statue with the half-exposed brain.

Outside, a few feet from harbor waters, a blue-shirted staffer explains the “shock of the day” experiment. She talks about liquid nitrogen, pours it into a bottle and caps it. The crowd takes a reflexive step back, then: “BOOM!” The trash can goes flying, onlookers burst into applause and someone shouts, “Let’s blow up another one!”

It’s one of the parents. These kinds of places are really popular with parents.

In the past two years, the American Alliance of Museums has seen a 135 percent jump in membership among children’s museums and a 52 percent jump in science-technology centers.

It is growth fueled by increased focus on early learning; emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math, called STEM education; and the success of these museums as community anchors and engines of economic growth. It’s also fueled by parental demand for sophisticated, play places that make for shared experiences.

These museums let parents thrill, right along with their kids, to all things that fizz, float, fly and freeze, and they help the family get in some really cool (covalent) bonding time.

Fully engaged in the process

“Anything with hands-on learning fun, I’m there,” says Latanya Bakari, a middle school science teacher from New Jersey who was celebrating her birthday with her husband, Perry, and 10-year-old son, Jahir. The trio hover over an experiment on cell membranes in the Science Center Wet Lab.

Perry, a juvenile mental health and drug counselor in Newark, says kids are too disengaged with the learning process and over-focused on the end product. You have to teach kids “the step by step,” he says, and that becomes a life lesson. “Even in my line of work, it’s important to speak to kids about the process of change.”

Museum staffer Annemarie Rush sets up the experiments and answers questions. Kids come in saying, “Ugh, science,” she says, but they come back excited about the stuff they never get to do in school. “It’s the hands-on thing,” she says. They hear teachers drone on and on about science, but then to see it work, to see how it works, it’s a different thing. It engages the physical and the mental.”

The Pacific Science Center, one of the first to use the term, opened in a Seattle World’s Fair building in 1962. In 1969, Frank Oppenheimer’s Exploratorium opened in San Francisco, and the Ontario Science Center opened outside of Toronto. In 1970, the Association of Science-Technology Centers had 20 founding institutions — including a number of older natural history and technology museums that were beginning to adopt the hands-on exhibit approaches of newer centers.

The space race had centralized the role of science in public perception, and the idea of science in a museum setting “that was not curator-based but much more experiential” had gained traction, according to ASTC chief executive Bud Rock.

In 2005, the ASTC had 540 members. It will have 652 members — ranging in sizes from 3,000 square feet to over a million — by the end of 2013. Rock attributes much of their success to focusing on ways science is meaningful to society. It used to be you’d have pictures of human cells and things that light up, Rock says. “In today’s much more complex world, you’ll start with a subject like infectious diseases, then talk about the body, then talk about the cell.” Even in a difficult economic climate, Rock says, visitor numbers have remained stable or grown.

“What studies are showing is that a child who is inspired by science, who shows an interest by eighth grade, is three times more likely to pursue a science-related degree in college than those who simply do well on standardized tests,” he says. “So, inspiration is an extremely important dimension of what we do.”

A few years ago, the Science Museum of Virginia, which opened on one level of a historic train station in 1977, and is now spread over four levels, was looking to revitalize its approach to teaching the subject. It decided not to teach, but to market, communicate and coach visitors in science using pop culture and things they cared about. The resulting exhibition, “Boost!” which opened in June, uses interactivity for self-improvement. Data cards help visitors keep score at 26 stations dealing with strength, agility, balance, memory, focus and creativity.

“It’s a really nice fit for us,” says Richard Conti, director and chief wonder officer. “We very much thought about how a family could experience these things together,” and “Boost!” allows them to compete against one another and themselves.

“Dad will probably win the bench press, but Mom might do better at reaction time, flexibility and balance. There’s something in that kind of fun,” that brings people back, Conti says.

Dennis Wint is president and chief executive of the Franklin Institute, which was founded in 1824 as a museum of science and mechanical arts. It has been one of the major drivers of the modern science center movement. Wint calls science centers economic engines and calls the placement of the Maryland Science Center at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, “a placeholder for urban renewal. Also there’s the sense that these are such extraordinarily successful institutions, it’s almost like having a major league sports team. If you don’t have a science center, you’re not a major city.”

The Franklin Institute’s iconic walk-through heart exhibition, open since 1954, now features an electrocardiogram wave, a video of open-heart surgery, heart specimens and heart healthy interactives. Dewey Blanton, director of strategic communications at the American Alliance of Museums, remembers visiting it as a 10-year-old. “I heard about the museum on Philly TV; I grew up in Delaware. My mother took me there, and I walked through wide-eyed in wonderment,” Blanton says. “That visit ignited a lifetime passion for museums.”

A major exhibition opening in June focuses on the human brain.

Wint calls parents central to the museum’s popularity. “We don’t see parents as delivery agents of their kids. What happens here is a social experience.” The museum has adults-only nights of lectures and programs.

Inside “Sir Isaac’s Loft” at the Franklin Institute, Gilbert Maddock, watches as his 17-month-old son, Gibson, stares transfixed at moving balls. “I think we were more engaged than he was,” Maddock says.

Maddock says adults remember when “all we wanted to do was go to a museum and touch things and we were told, ‘No, no, no, don’t touch!’ ” Then you have a child, and you visit a place where you can touch things, “and you feel like a child as well.”

Destination places

Less than 15 minutes from the Franklin Institute, Philadelphia’s Please TouchMuseum caters to that very sentiment among the elementary school crowd. The museum, which started as an exhibit at the Academy of Natural Sciences in 1976, moved into its current home, Memorial Hall, an 1876 beaux-arts-style former art gallery, in 2008 because it needed more space.

The soaring entry way, with its domed ceiling and detailed carvings, is juxtaposed with sculptures of recycled toys, a wonderland of exhibitions and interactives. It is perfectly repurposed, a place that takes child’s play seriously.

Since the relocation, “our attendance every year has been over a half-million,” says Joe Costello, a museum vice president. In mid-November, it will reach the 3 million visitor mark. Please Touch is a destination place, one of the leading children’s museums in the country, and Costello cites a Philadelphia Cultural Alliance report that puts its economic impact at $81 million a year.

“Children’s museums are the fastest growing segment of the museum world,” says Laura Foster, interim executive director of the Association of Children’s Museums and former president and chief executive of Please Touch. According to ACM, more than 31 million children and families visit children’s museums — about 400 in the United States, and there are 60 more in the planning phase — every year.

“It’s been within the last 10-15 years that we’ve seen an enormous increase of children’s museums all over the world, and it coincides with an interest in early learning and an understanding that early learning is really important to children not just in school, but in life,” Foster says.

The 80,000-square-foot Port Discovery in Baltimore gets about 260,000 visitors a year and is considered one of the top five children’s museum in the country. Permanent exhibitions include an urban tree house, a soccer and game stadium, and a nano science exhibit.

After an eight year absence, the 18,000-square-foot National Children’s Museum, formerly the Capital Children’s museum, opened at the National Harbor in Prince George’s County in December. There are plans for a 60,000-square-foot “outdoor experience,” to include an amphitheater and a Big Wheel raceway, to open next year, but that still makes it considerably smaller than many of the other major children's institutions. (Please Touch is 136,000 square feet, the Maryland Science Center is 170,000 square feet and Port Discovery is 80,000 square feet.) Officials have said they expect it to grow.

‘Magic more than science’

At “The Shed” do-it-yourself station inside the Maryland Science Center, home-schooling mom Lisa Young and her children, Thomas, 13, Emily, 11, and James, 8, are busy working to build miniature golf courses. Thomas is designing a “Jurassic Park” theme, James is doing an obstacle course, and Emily is designing hers with pink and purple feathers and a “Save the Polar Bears” theme.

“I like that you have to think and create to accomplish what you are trying to do, and to start over if that doesn’t work,” says Young, reaching over to help James.

“I like that they have the museums for the children,” says Emily while gluing her feathers. “It almost seems like it’s magic more than science.”

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