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Madison Children’s Museum advances expansion plans for major new outdoor exhibit space and infrastructure improvements

For immediate release
January 15, 2020
Contact: Jonathan Zarov, (608) 335-2783;
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Note: Madison Children’s Museum director of exhibits Brenda Baker will attend the Madison Urban Design Commission meeting tonight (1/15/20) and will be available for comment.

MADISON, Wis. –– Madison Children’s Museum is planning a major, multi-faceted project to “elevate play and the brilliance of childhood.” The project will create a skyline changing destination attraction, increase the museum’s capacity to bring the developmental benefits of open-ended play to all children, and better support building exhibits in-house.

Project plans would expand the museum’s exhibit space by 50%.

Though still in the early stages of planning, development, and fundraising, the project, with its centerpiece of a 75-foot climbing sculpture, has drawn interest ahead of presenting initial plans to the Urban Design Commission tonight, Wednesday, January 15. This is a necessary meeting to get preliminary input and guidance on any exterior plans that interface with city-owned property (e.g. sidewalks, fencing, etc.).

The new exhibit, and much of the infrastructure improvement, will be constructed on the museum’s backlot (between Hamilton, Dayton, and Pinckney streets), which started life as a parking lot. It was understood when the museum purchased the building in 2005 that the parking structure behind the museum would only last about ten years before needing major repairs or demolition. It has not been structurally sound enough to function as a parking lot for the last four years.

Soon after closing the lot to parking, the museum’s exhibit staff tried an experiment that would become an inspiration for the current plan: The Funkyard, built mostly out of pallets and cable spools, was a popular exhibit encouraging outdoor play. Years later, visitors still ask if there are plans to bring it back.

The decision to build and expand was driven by more than the success of The Funkyard or the need to remediate the former parking lot. Other factors include national research showing the need for environments that support outdoor, active play, and safe risk-taking; feedback from scores of museum-led, local listening sessions with community groups; and increasing museum use and the need for more space to serve growing audiences.

“The importance of this project cannot be overstated,” says Brenda Baker, the museum’s director of exhibits. “Not only will it create a breathtaking, playful, outward-facing statement about our community’s commitment to young children and families, but it will also provide accessible, foundational, and engaging active play experiences for all children in our community, which we know are the essential building blocks for all learning.”

Deb Gilpin, the museum’s president and CEO, puts the project into context. “With nearly 40 years of providing learning through play for families in Madison and beyond, we’ve proven we have the vision, creativity, and expertise to help children blossom toward their greatest potential. Now we have the obligation to leverage those strengths to meet new challenges and to bring even greater impact for all children by building a bold, innovative space that only we can create.”

Madison Children’s Museum is a privately funded nonprofit and does not receive funding from the City of Madison’s general operating budget. So, along with planning, museum staff and board are working to secure private support and funding.

“We’ve only just begun,” says Dani Luckett, the museum’s director of development, “but we are confident that visionaries, leaders, and families across Madison will come together to make this dream a reality. The museum has a number of donors who have consistently supported us over the years and many new members and visitors who value the experiences we provide.  Madison’s growing community of young families will ultimately bring this project to life.”


  • Connects children with their families, their community and the world beyond through creative learning and discovery play
  • Strives to make all families feel welcome, valued, and included by living the ideals of Access, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
  • Is a community hub for children and families from every corner of Madison, and serves more than 200,000 visitors per year
  • Is a community partner and gateway for families to access and participate in other cultural institutions and community programs

Founded in 1980, the museum’s hands-on exhibits and programs celebrate and encourage children’s imaginations and the power of play as cornerstones of learning. The museum is a proud recipient of the 2011 National Medal for Museum Service from the Institute of Museum and Library Services. To learn more, visit, call (608) 256-6445, and follow on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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