Museum leaders launch plan to save 80-year-old institutionby Bob Kelleher, Minnesota Public Radio
Just seven years ago, the Duluth Children's Museum was on the verge of closing. The nation's fifth-oldest children's museum resides in an old railroad depot downtown, and after years of financial struggles, museum leaders have an ambitious plan to save the nearly 80-year-old institution.
Duluth, Minn. — The story of the Duluth Children's Museum is a classic rags to riches tale, only they're still waiting for the riches. But they've got a plan.
Established in 1930, the museum has amassed a historic but scattershot collection of 15,000 items. Its textiles collection is second in size only to the Smithsonian's.
The museum never was a moneymaker, and by the year 2000 it was clearly in trouble. That's when CEO Michael Garcia came on board.
"There were days when we didn't have 12 people visit the museum five years ago," Garcia said, "and now we have crowd control issues."
On this weekday morning, there are dozens of pre-school aged kids and their adults visiting. Some of the kids are dressed in Medieval costumes, and others sit around a table making crayons from scratch.
The activity surrounding Garcia is all part of a relatively new approach at the Duluth Children's Museum -- to get kids involved in learning something new. What was once a collection of static displays is now an active place.
With the new approach, museum directors pumped up the cash coming in the door. The move expanded membership from just 77 households three years ago, to more than 1,200 today. Annual grants could reach $500,000 this year, including a $381,000 federal earmark just awarded.
But even with that, Garcia said, the museum can't survive in its present location. He said the depot building doesn't have the layout, the space or the visibility.
"We needed to start to look at relocation and, in spite of the difficult economic situation the Children's Museum was in, we recognized that we couldn't change the financial scenario without changing the location," Garcia said.
The activities and exhibits they plan will be impossible in their current digs, according to Museum Board Chair Tony Yung.
"Because of us moving from more of a traditional passive museum to more of an interactive children's museum -- which quite frankly is why I'm so enthralled with this in the first place -- we have a space that is not conducive for pre-K children, and not conducive for our membership moving forward," Yung said.
Instead, the future could be just off Interstate 35 in an old building. The long-closed Duluth Malt and Beverage Co. is a big, dark and damp warehouse, with just the right square footage and layout for a lot of busy kids.
Museum CEO Michael Garcia is able to ignore the snowmelt pooling on the floor.
"It's a beautiful shell of an old building that's totally suited for the adaptive use of a children's museum," Garcia.
It's also next to a new youth hockey and sports center, in a complex targeted for extensive redevelopment.
Another attraction is the nearby lower-income Lincoln Park neighborhood. Part of Garcia's mission is to reach out to kids who might not have access to something like this.
The combination of a highly visible location, nearby activities and a neighborhood plays to the museum's favor, according to Ken Bloom, who manages the University of Minnesota Duluth's Tweed Museum of Art.
"I think Lincoln Park, as a service area, is critical," Bloom said. "The west part of this community needs such services. I think the whole opportunity of moving in that area offers access to people who not normally would be able to partake, if you will."
But you don't buy and rehab a new building for nothing. The museum launched its $6 million capital campaign late last fall, just in time for the economic crash.
With private fundraising more challenging than ever, they'll be turning to the public sector, with a $3 million bonding request expected for next year's state Legislature. Museum directors hope to match that with another $3 million raised privately.
If things fall into place, the brewery building could be purchased by the end of this year, with a move by 2011.
- All Things Considered, 04/07/2009, 5:54 p.m.