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Open Wed–Sun 9am–4pm, plus late on Thur til 8pm. • Get tickets.

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Peter and Laura Chidyllo moved to Wisconsin with their two children during the height of the pandemic. After a year of social distancing, Laura and Pete were eager to visit MCM—to provide creative play opportunities for their children and as a way for them to learn about their new home in the Midwest.

“Having moved amid the pandemic, the museum was the first place that we felt safe and comfortable inside. The kids were also able to learn about their new state in the Coops to Cathedral exhibit by playing with cows on the farm!” shared Peter.

In appreciation, they made a generous gift and became Wonder Makers.

The Chidyllos attended the opening celebration of the Wonderground in fall of 2022. The space captivated the whole family. Laura appreciates, in particular, the chances for child-driven play planted throughout the Wonderground.

“The Wonderground gives the kids an outlet to use their imagination, especially at the cabin. Our kids don’t have to follow anybody’s rules or play the right way. They can just play and pioneer for the afternoon. It’s a whole encompassing experience for our kids to learn and play using their imagination.”

Child-driven play empowers children to take the lead in their learning as they explore the museum at their own pace and in their own way. Research shows that allowing children to play in this way can help build a child’s self-confidence, self-direction, and social development.

The museum’s historic 1830s cabin is located on a small knoll overlooking the Wonderground.

The Chidyllos have had a hand in recent child-driven playful moments: They became major sponsors of winter programming.

Peter and Laura have a strong history of giving back to their community. “We like to support organizations that focus on children, as well as eliminating food insecurity. We appreciate that MCM does both through access to safe, imaginative play and access to food within Little John’s Lunchbox.”

Madison Children’s Museum is grateful for that support, which helps provide opportunities for joyful play to approximately 200,000 visitors each year, nearly 50,000 of whom visit for free or at a reduced cost through MCM’s six Access for Everyone programs.

A museum visitor makes delicious woodchip soup outside the cabin in the Wonderground.

Learn more about becoming a Wonder Maker and supporting a wonder-ful cause with wonder-ous benefits. Support MCM today!

Board begins national search for new leader

After 11 years at the helm of Madison Children’s Museum, and 36 years total in children’s and science museums, Deb Gilpin, MCM’s President and CEO, will retire this summer. The museum’s board of directors has begun a national search for her replacement.

“Deb leaves the museum in great shape, giving plenty of notice for the daunting task of replacing her,” says Matt Premo, president of the MCM board. “We’re in the admirable position of looking for a leader who can continue to make great things happen.”

Like so many of the museum’s best features, Gilpin is locally grown, born and raised in the Madison area. She began her museum career in 1987, when she helped open the Discovery Museum, a new hands-on museum in Acton, Mass. After serving as CEO for ten years, she moved to the Arizona Science Center, and then opened another museum—the Children’s Museum of Phoenix, growing it for nine years from infancy to one of the top children’s museums in the country.

Deb brought her talent, experience, and passion for the field to MCM. Under her oversight, MCM continued to flourish as an industry leader, setting the standard for other museums in sustainability and breaking down barriers to access.

Gilpin took the job in 2013, three years after MCM moved from State Street to its larger current home on Capitol Square. Under her leadership the museum grew and thrived, building several new exhibits; improving its financial position through donations, grants, and earned revenue; increasing employee pay and retention; growing community partnerships; and continuing the museum’s history of innovation and leadership in the children’s museum field.

She led the museum through 15 months of pandemic-forced closure and the long, slow process of reopening and recovery. Like many leaders of businesses and nonprofits, she made hard decisions about layoffs, terminations, and cutting positions. Within months of reopening the museum, the Wonderground opened—a 10,000-square-foot, sustainably built playground for active, imaginative play, constructed on the museum’s former parking lot. In place of an unusable, structurally compromised eyesore, the community now had a safe place for healthy outdoor play just as families were cautiously venturing back out. By that time, many staff forced to leave in the crisis had been rehired.

Since reopening, the museum is stronger and more successful by all significant measures.

During her time, Gilpin oversaw the launch of several innovative programs. In response to the first Race to Equity report in 2014, the Teen Workforce program was launched to improve the job opportunity gap between teens of color and their peers. That program continues with new teens joining the staff team each summer, while many graduates of the program have been promoted into other positions at the museum.

In 2017, the museum launched the First-Time Parent Membership, giving a free membership to every family with a new child, until the child turns 18 months old—2,000 families signed up before the end of the first year. That program is also still running, and at least a half dozen other children’s museums have consulted with MCM staff and launched their own similar programs.

In 2022 MCM opened the first pay-what-you-can restaurant in a museum, Little John’s Lunchbox. The cafe served nearly 16,000 meals last year, many to food insecure families. The Lunchbox was recently listed by the American Association of Museums as one of twelve noteworthy innovations in 2023.

The Access for Everyone program, reducing barriers to museum admission, was in place when Gilpin arrived. Under her leadership, usage increased from 17 to 30%, a healthy indication that MCM is serving families who might not otherwise be able to afford to visit. In 2018, MCM further reduced barriers by removing documentation requirements from Access for Everyone membership and admission programs. This simple change has likely contributed to the increased usage—and decreased stigma.

Gilpin has timed her departure to go out on a high note: Early this summer, MCM will open a major new exhibit, The Nice Age Trail. That exhibit grows from the Caretakers of Wonder initiative, funded through a national leadership grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services. MCM is leading a cohort of eight children’s museums and science centers on a two-year project supporting young children and their families in the face of climate change. Here in the Madison area, the exhibit will be the most visible product of Caretakers of Wonder. But later in the summer of 2024, the influence of Caretakers of Wonder will grow well beyond Madison—and the other eight partner sites—as the project shares learning and resources with the national museum field and other organizations that serve young children and families.

Gilpin has made her mark here and in the national museum field, leaving programs, exhibits, and ideas that will benefit children for many years to come. She plans to take three months off after her retirement to rest, recharge, and travel. Then she expects to find new ways to serve.

“I see every child who comes through the front door like a glowing ball of potential. I’ve always been curious about drawing out those gifts—for their own good as well as for the benefit of others with whom they will interact,” says Gilpin. “I think it’s those kids with their nearly limitless potential who I’ll miss most.”

The board has retained the services of the Arts Consulting Group, a national full-service consulting firm specializing in executive search for arts and culture organizations.

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