The National Children’s Museum ’s anticipated new home opens Nov. 1 in the Ronald Reagan Building in downtown Washington, signaling a new chapter for a beloved institution that has been closed for more than four years.
The fall opening is eight months later than promised, the result of unexpected construction delays. But museum officials are confident that the $15 million, 30,000-square-foot space between Pennsylvania Avenue and the Mall is now on track. The space will blend the tech-focused characteristics of a science center with core elements of a children’s museum, stretching the target audience to age 12 and connecting the entire experience with a dream motif.
“The children will have a magical moment of entry,” museum president and chief executive Crystal Bowyer said of the multiple-story Dream Machine, a structure of slides and climbers that starts the adventure. “We wanted to weave all the STEAM concepts, incorporating the arts into STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] through dreaming.”
The museum will open with a gala party Nov. 1 and a family day Nov. 2. Tickets for the fundraising celebrations range from $75 to $750 for various events, including dinner, cocktails and desserts, as well as access to the exhibits. More information will be available on the museum’s website this summer.
Beginning Nov. 3, the museum will be open daily from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tickets, $10.99 for visitors older than 1, will be sold online. The museum hopes to attract about 500,000 visitors annually.
Originally named the Capital Children’s Museum, the institution opened in 1974 in a former convent on H Street NE. Congress designated it the National Children’s Museum in 2003, and a year later the museum sold the property it had long outgrown for $25 million. The plan was to reopen in a 140,000-square-foot space designed by architect César Pelli at L’Enfant Plaza in 2008.
That project never happened, nor did a second iteration of Pelli’s design — that one on donated land at National Harbor in Oxon Hill, Md. The museum opened the Launch Zone at National Harbor in 2009 to keep a physical presence while it sorted out its future. A larger space opened in 2012 but closed three years later.
Since 2015, the museum has been a virtual one, creating programs for D.C. public schools and public libraries.
“It’s a blessing in disguise that that didn’t happen,” Bowyer said of the Pelli construction. “The operating costs were too high. It couldn’t work out, even if you were successful with your attendance.”
The new space, at 1300 Pennsylvania Ave. — with nearby parking and a Metro stop — represents a return to stability, Bowyer said. “Whenever I’ve met with folks and told them our plans, they can see the possibility. They understand this is a very different project.”
Laura Huerta Migus, executive director of the Association of Children’s Museums, said the museum has benefited from the goodwill generated from its 30 years on H Street.
“They were really community centered, and they served two generations of children and families,” Migus said. “Even when they were closed or at National Harbor, the love and sentiment for Capital Children’s Museum persisted.”
Migus described the museum as an innovator in the field and said its new plan continues that tradition by presenting STEM-based lessons in a beautiful design.
“It’s one of the first to integrate [technology] from the outset,” she said. “They are building on all the bones of a successful learning experience with a modern aesthetic. It’s definitely the beginning of a new wave.”
The museum’s 20,000 square feet of exhibition space is on par with other children’s museums, Bowyer said. Its entrance is on Woodrow Wilson Plaza, and that space offers possibilities for outdoor activities. There is also potential for an interior expansion.
“We have big plans for the future,” she said, “but this is our first step, getting the doors open and having these magical experiences for the kids.”