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Deb Gilpin, new director for Madison Children’s Museum, uses stories to meld art, science and history

Isthmus

JESSICA STEINHOFF

Deb Gilpin could listen for a living. You can almost hear her pluck ideas from conversations. But her eyes stay focused on yours, making you feel at home whether you’re wedged in the Madison Children’s Museum elevator or roaming across the lush, green rooftop.

It’s impressive, considering that Gilpin became the museum’s executive director less than a month ago.

Her ears are one key to her success.

“Right now, I’m listening, mostly,” she says. “I hope…to help others understand the impact we’re having. We produce 800 programs a year that bring music, science, math, art and different cultural activities to kids and bring in partner agencies. That’s a huge story, so I’m learning how to tell it.”

Luckily, storytelling is another one of her strong suits. And it goes hand in hand with listening.

“When I’m talking to someone, I like to tie something in their world to the story I’m telling,” she says. “It brings the story to life and draws us a little closer.”

This cozy, connected vibe also stems from Gilpin’s upbringing. Raised in Madison and McFarland and educated at the UW, she considers Dane County home, even though she’s lived in Boston and Phoenix for most of her adult life. And she’s in her element at children’s museums, where she’s spent 25 years creating an inclusive vision for the future.

Gilpin began piecing together this vision during her first job at a local Holiday Inn. That gig, along with experience in early-childhood and environmental education, led to a business manager position at Massachusetts’ Discovery Museums in 1987. After serving as their director for 10 years, she moved to Arizona, where she helped found the Children’s Museum of Phoenix.

But Madison has always been on her mind.

Gilpin recalls how arts outings helped her family bond with each other and the community when she was a kid.

“My mom was French, so I grew up speaking French,” she says. “After she and my dad moved to Madison, we still spoke it.”

Arts organizations illustrated Madison’s give-and-take approach to community, which has had a profound impact on Gilpin’s own approach to both work and raising her 15-year-old son. Museums and performance troupes seemed especially good at lowering cultural barriers for families from other parts of the world.

“We weren’t rich but got everything we could from the community,” she says. “I remember going to the opera and symphony downtown, and art fairs on the Square.”

These were places not only to learn about culture but to observe neighbors and find topics to discuss with them.

Since starting her post, Gilpin has heard at least five languages inside MCM. It’s a pleasant reminder that each visitor has a unique origin story.

“We have to let every child find their way in from whatever place they’re coming from, and we also want to help adults see the child’s strengths,” she says. “The changes you can see in the families who visit are incredible. Even one visit can make a difference.”

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