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Question & Answer: New Director Sees More Science, Another Floor of Exhibits in Children’s Museum’s Future

The Capital Times

KATIE DEAN

Debbie Gilpin, 52, has crisscrossed the country to lead children’s museums, but as the new head of the Madison Children’s Museum, she’s finally home.

Gilpin, a Madison native who attended Schenk Elementary, McFarland High School and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, became executive director of the Madison Children’s Museum in July. She brings a wealth of experience to the job, having helmed museums in the Boston area and Phoenix.

When she started her museum career in 1987 in Acton, Mass., there were about 100 children’s museums in the country. A decade later, “children’s museums just exploded. Now there are over 350 of them in the country,” Gilpin said.

“We all play well in the sandbox together,” she said. “We share ideas. We don’t try to re-invent things (but) we do to make them unique to ourselves.”

As director of the small children’s museum in Acton, she opened a science museum on the same property. Phoenix, the sixth largest city in the country, didn’t have a children’s museum when she moved there to head up the city’s science center. She was later tapped to direct the launch of the children’s museum there; it opened in 2008.

Now, both Phoenix and Madison are considered homes to two of the top 10 children’s museums in the country.

“I’d always followed the Madison Children’s Museum,” said Gilpin, who has a teenage son and a daughter in college. “I’ve had my eye on it, knowing my family was here. I think the old museum would have been too small for me. This museum is just beautiful and perfect size.

“It’s got the intimacy that can happen in a smaller museum but it has the potential of a larger museum… (It is) this very creative, holistic offering that has math and science and music and art everywhere in it.”

The Capital Times: How will your previous experience help Madison’s museum?

Debbie Gilpin: Some of the things that came into place after three years (in Phoenix), the stabilizing of the organization, the dust had settled, I experienced a little further along in that process so I feel like I’m really able to help here.

This museum opened with nearly double the projected attendance and it continues to be high like that, so really they’ve been just running as fast as they can to service that visitation.

Some of what I hope to do is to look at what we do super well, where we have gaps and pull the focus in a little bit… (establish) some systems and processes that will be a little less organic, a little bit more organized so we can continue to make great decisions about the future of the museum.

Given its popularity, should the museum be bigger?

Well there’s the question. We have a whole other floor that we can open up when the time is right. It’s really important to me that we not measure success on growth. Success is on the experience every visitor has every day in the museum and so just because it’s there, we shouldn’t just rush and open that space.

We opened this huge facility and we need to make sure we’re stable financially and organizationally before we go launch into something new.

And adults tend to want new things. So the energy is around ‘Oh, let’s open that other space!’ But interestingly, if you think about a child, they will go down a slide over and over and over again. So they want to come back to the same thing and they want to test it differently.

In Phoenix, how did the museum reflect the environment and the culture? How does that compare to Madison?

It did much less so. We didn’t come from a group of staff that had connections in the community already. This (Madison’s) museum had over 150 artists participate in creating it. We didn’t have that network because we didn’t exist before. We definitely had the arts component, but not much that was really desert-y or tied to the local community. Frankly, that’s the piece that I really missed and that Madison does more beautifully than any other museum I know in the country.

How is the museum faring financially?

We’re healthy financially but there are challenges. We will have a major debt come due that we need to close the gap on. We have time, we have a few years but we need to make a plan. Annually, it’s a very tight budget. We have to live with that. We maximize resources already but are there other ways we can do that? That’s what I’m looking for.

Where does the bulk of the revenue come from?

There’s admissions and attendance and membership and that’s about a third. And then the annual doll sale. American Girl donates its seconds and then we have this big sale and we keep half the proceeds and the rest go to the American Girl Fund. This year was a great year and what we ended up with is $400,000-plus — a huge, incredible gift. No one in the country has something like that. And then rest is fundraised. It’s split between those three areas.

How critical are the adult events to sustaining the museum?

We have Adult Swim, weddings, bar mitzvah, anniversary, birthday parties. We haven’t had any proms but in Phoenix we had proms. We had 4 or 5 every spring. And once you get the little kids out of the way, the big kids will play.

I wouldn’t say it’s a critical line item but it’s a very important one. It’s growing and growing. Last year it more than doubled in size and I think that’s got to do with getting the word out that there’s this cool space.

Does that factor in to the design of the exhibits?

We definitely account for it. If you think of what is on the second floor, a lot of those exhibit elements are moveable. That’s so we can get a dance floor out there. And we would be shooting ourselves in the foot if we didn’t make that possible.

Do exhibits ever need to be modified?

Oh it still happens. We tweak. For example, the human gerbil wheel — the general sense was it took a year to get the kinks out of that to make it really work. It was too fast. They didn’t plan to staff it, they had to add a brake and they had to add a generator that would let that brake work. The handles weren’t really in the right place.

On the rooftop, we had quite a bit of feedback and learned that there wasn’t enough climbing, the larger motor skills. So that’s why the acorn was added (and) the crow’s nest. That was part of responding to what we missed.

Has there been discussion about what you might do on the third floor?

There has. There are not a lot of answers yet but we definitely feel that there’s a place for a little more science emphasis. And part of that seems to come with the idea of reaching older children. That’s a decision we need to make. We’re going to do a short term strategic plan for this next year and then kick off a longer 3-5 year plan. What would be the threshold items that tell us it’s time to open up the third floor? There’s money, there’s visitation, there’s opportunities that come our way.

Has the money continued to come in since the opening? Has that momentum continued?

Well it’s really different. The funding now is for things like feeding the chickens we have, it’s not to buy the chickens. It’s not always as appealing for people to give to that. It’s a harder pitch but it’s just as critical. We have to fund that behind-the-scenes stuff. Otherwise it won’t be that great experience every day. It’s funny because it is maintaining but it’s to continue the freshness.

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