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New Madison Children’s Museum is an experience to behold

Wisconsin State Journal


It’s a fantasy world where you can climb through a 1950s three-wheeled car salvaged from a junk yard or through a buoy that once bobbed on Lake Michigan to slide down a dragon’s belly. Or where the very youngest can play global instruments in a hut made of mud and straw while a smaller (and imaginary) version of the Dane County Farmer’s Market takes place nearby.

And almost nowhere in the new Madison Children’s Museum, which opens Saturday, will you find instructions on how things are supposed to be used.

“Essentially there aren’t any rules,” said Ruth Shelly, the museum’s executive director. “We will have lessons built in but we want kids to be kids.”

The new $16.5 million museum, located at 100 N. Hamilton St., will feature a public area more than three times the size of the museum’s former location on State Street.

Because of the cramped quarters on State Street, the museum had focused solely on children up to age 8 but with 26,000 square feet of play space the museum will now cater to children from birth to age 12. Although, adults are just as likely to be wowed by the colorful and creative exhibits made mostly out of recycled or repurposed materials.

“You come into the building and you feel like you’re in Madison – it exudes that feel,” Shelly said. “We want to enhance and reinforce that sense of place.”

Local and natural materials

The Madison Children’s Museum has always been a leader in sustainability among other children’s museums in the nation, according to Diane Kopasz, spokeswoman for the Association of Children’s Museums.

“Madison is very environmentally conscious … and the Madison Children’s Museum is a leader in creating exhibits made with local and natural materials and supported by local suppliers,” Kopasz said. “That’s one point that makes them different from other museums.”

In keeping with the local theme, Brenda Baker, the museum’s director of exhibits, said most of the artists who designed exhibits are from Wisconsin, and a lot of pieces were worked on by area elementary school children.

When the museum was running low on funds to create its Possible-opolis exhibit, Baker turned to salvaged and repurposed objects to use as building materials, climbers and in other exhibits. Madison road signs were turned into blocks. The floor used to be in a high school gym. And even the Legos for the robots are second-hand.

“It was sort of a better teaching tool for kids to realize that you don’t have to have new things to have fun,” Baker said.

The museum is hoping to become the first LEED green building certified museum in Wisconsin, Shelly said.

The museum also boasts a designated bike parking area and it’s accessible by Metro Transit bus as well, she said.

Though the museum features many new exhibits and activities, some popular features from the old museum will reappear, such as fiberglass cows Gertrude and Melba Sue from the old dairy exhibit, the Shadow Room where children can draw on the walls with illuminating pens, and the Juice Caboose, which has been refashioned into the Pie in the Sky Diner.

Throughout the museum, the emphasis is on play.

“We’re trying to get kids to learn through play,” Baker said. “Our exhibits are never preachy. It’s all about getting kids to have a physical experience … learning by doing.”

Culmination of decade-long path

The near decade-long path to a new museum has not been an easy one, Shelly said.

Having outgrown its space at 100 State St., the children’s museum was originally supposed to be part of the Overture Center. Those plans, however, were dropped in 2000 and philanthropist Jerry Frautschi gave the museum $5 million to relocate nearby.

The museum looked at a number of sites Downtown, including a site on West Washington Avenue and becoming part of the Madison Area Technical College Downtown campus, but none worked out until 2005 when officials settled on the Hamilton Street site.

A former Montgomery Ward department store turned state office building, the site was large enough to allow the museum to more than triple its public space, have room for expansion and consolidate all museum staff into one location.

Plus, the new museum has a view.

The rooftop has been turned into a year-round exhibit focused on nature. With soil 3-feet deep in some places, the roof has been transformed into a garden. Six chickens and two pairs of homing pigeons call the Rooftop Ramble home, as well as fish, turtles and a snake living in the clubhouse.

But one of the main ideas was to show Madison children something hard for them to see elsewhere: an overview of their hometown.

Seeing the city from above is a first step for children to be able to understand a map and yet another way for the museum to convey a sense of place, Shelly said.

“Getting that bird’s eye view was really important for us educationally and philosophically,” she said.

Just off Capitol Square, the museum hopes to draw in more visitors, particularly some of the more than 45,000 fourth-graders visiting the Capitol every year. The museum estimates seeing around 340 daily visitors at its new location, up from 230 per day on State Street.

The new location of the Madison Children’s Museum will also have a positive economic impact by generating more activity along the Capitol Square and helping boost commerce for area businesses, according to Susan Schmitz, president of Downtown Madison Inc., a group that promotes the central city.

“(Shelly) and the staff have done an amazing job with the local presence they’ve put into the children’s exhibits,” Schmitz said. “I want to be a kid again because it is absolutely amazing.”

— Capital Times reporter Lindsay Christians contributed to this article.

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