Gearing Up for Changes

Last week, we announced that The Children’s Museum of Atlanta will temporarily close our doors on August 1 in order to begin an extensive and transformative renovation project (check out the story in the AJC).

I sat down with Karen Kelly, Director of Exhibits and Education, and Rachel Towns, Manager of Exhibits, to get a little more information about what Atlanta will be able to expect when the Museum reopens in late 2015.

How do you start a project like this, and turn it from a daydream into something concrete? What is the procedure like?

Karen Kelly: What you really do is, you look back and you think about what’s working and what’s not working, and what works for people and what doesn’t work for people, because it isn’t really about what our wishlist is, it’s about what the guests and their kids, the families and teachers would like to see. We started out by researching and watching people on the Museum floor, and having teachers and educators come in and do evaluations. We did surveys of over 3,000 people. And then we took all that data, and added our wishlist in, which included “Can we reach a broader age range than we do now?” because we’re really supposed to go to age eight, but our floor doesn’t.

So help me understand the timeline. When did this procedure really start?

KK: We started in 2007. We were having conversations and the Museum had been open for about four years, and we were thinking that it was time for the next step.  So we took all of that and then we also visited other children’s museums, to find out what was working for them, what they had done right, what they had done wrong. Sometimes it’s more about what they did wrong, and what didn’t work. We wanted to know what worked for them, and their communities. We went to the Minnesota Children’s Museum, we went to Indianapolis, EdVenture in Columbia, and Creative Discovery Museum in Chattanooga… we went to a lot of different places. We pulled all that in to see what worked, looking at the immersive environments. Then we looked at how other folks had done their campaigns and changed their museums over, and again people were very generous, and gave us their secret, behind-the-scenes ideas on how they put together their grand exhibit master plans. Actually, using a lot of those templates, that’s how I created an exhibit master plan based on all the information we had collected.

Rachel, what were some of the children’s museums that you enjoyed looking at?

Rachel Towns: Oh, I really enjoyed the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. I think that especially they have the whole “0-99” age range down, they have something for everyone and I feel like we took a lot from that. I also enjoyed EdVenture in South Carolina, those are two of the main ones!

As we shifted from looking at what our needs were into a funding situation. did it later come down to what we could afford and what we can envision…

KK: Actually, we kind of did it the other way around. The first step came to take all those ideas and put them into an exhibit master plan, and at that point, we invited different exhibit design firms to bid on helping us make this a reality. We went through what I called “Speed Dating,” so we saw seven exhibit firms in two days. This was with senior staff and our advisory committees. They pitched ideas to us based on what we had sent them.

So I know that one of things we’re going to have is a climbing structure. When you put the call out to the design companies, do you say something like “Bring us your ideas for a climbing structure?”

KK: No, we said we wanted an exhibit that made people stop and say “Wow!,” in the center of the Museum, and it should reflect Atlanta and its position as a gateway to the region and the world.  We said it would be nice to have a climbing structure, but we didn’t limit them, and one of the firms did not come up with a climbing structure. This one we’re using – Jack Rouse and Associates – did, but they each came back with different ideas and it was very fun to see. But Jack Rouse got the job, and Rachel can guess why…

Why’d they get it?

RT: They are awesome! They’re very inventive, and they listened to our ideas, and somehow they bring it all to life. They’re taking our concepts and making it all real, in the best way possible. They’re not leaving anything out.

KK: They’re really not, and the thing that I liked about them is first off was their enthusiasm for the job, but also the fact that although they’re a huge, huge company, they work with very small museums, with budgets much less than ours, all the way up to very large ones, enormous ones, so they have a wide range of experience. You can take some of the cool things you can do for lots of money for somebody else, and adapt them for much less money for smaller museum.

With that in mind, one of the things that I’ve heard about is that one of the new continent tables is going to have shifting topography…

RT: Yes, we’ll have a shake table on South America to demonstrate earthquakes!

So when you want a shake table to show earthquakes, does a firm like Rouse say “We know exactly how to do that,” or do they go figure it out…

RT: They came up with it.

KK: It’s a mix, and if they know what to do, they’ll tell you, and if not, they’ll come up with a concept like with the glacier interactive on the Europe table, where they’re going to try and drag stuff through ball bearings or other materials to see what happens to the land when a glacier pushes through, then they ask the fabricator as a partner to see if they can figure out how to make it work.

I’m excited about the rockets. Tell me about those!

RT: Well, on the back side of the climber, there are going to be two rocket stations where children can use an air compression pump to power a rocket up and hit different planets. These will be stretch fabric over a frame, so it will make a tight little drum sound when the rockets hit the planet. They can learn all about trajectory and angles and thrust. We’re hoping to make them out of a Nerf-like material.

Rather than an actual exhibit that you’re looking forward to, is there something about the process that’s coming up, the construction, that excites you?

RT: Absolutely. Having an architectural background, I’m really eager to see the general contractors come in and demolish everything and then build everything, from the mezzanine, and then the exhibits coming in, and seeing everything erected is just a dream to me, just seeing the whole process come to life. It’s something I really look forward to, and even then after that, further in the future, seeing the kids come in and get that “Wow,” it just makes me glow. I want to see the diner, and it’s all so exciting.

KK: Yes, I’m looking forward to seeing stuff that we’ve been talking about since 2007, 2008, and finally having it out there. One of my favorite moments has been last week when we were on the phone to the fabricators and they were describing the continent tables and we were all like, “This is so cool! We’re really going to have this!” And THEY were so excited! We’ve got these great fabricators, Heartland, out in Omaha, Nebraska, and they have done work for other children’s museums. They’re great  folks and very calm, but our fabricator was so excited talking about the continent tables, and how they’re going to put the layers together, and make the rivers look like they’re flowing, and it was just real after all the years of planning. And if he’s that excited, just think of how a kid is going to feel, when he pushed the button and the Nile lights up, following the path down to the Mediterranean. It’s going to be so amazing!

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