Children’s Museum still looking to grow
At 25, the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh has grown into a mature nonprofit and community leader — although it’s still all about kids.
Originally called the Pittsburgh Children’s Museum, it was on the leading edge of a wave of children’s museums that began opening around the country in the ’80s.
The idea for a children’s museum here dates back to 1972, when a group of community leaders established The Pittsburgh Children’s Museum Project — a mobile traveling museum that started at the Three Rivers Arts Festival.
The physical space opened its doors in the basement of the historic North Side post office building in Allegheny Center in June 1983. The Junior League of Pittsburgh got the project off the ground. Two years later, it expanded to the rest of the building, quadrupling its space and housing an exhibit of puppets from the collection of puppeteer Margo Lovelace.
The ’90s brought other key developments. The Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation deeded the post office building to the museum. The museum launched several educational outreach programs and hosted its first traveling exhibit — “Kidsbridge.” In 1995, another traveling exhibit built around the works of “Sesame Street” creator Jim Henson set attendance records at the museum. In ’98, the museum created a major traveling exhibit of its own: “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood — A Hands-On Exhibit.” There were two traveling versions of the Rogers exhibit. One is now part of the museum’s permanent collection; the other was donated to the New Orleans Children’s Museum in 2007.
The 21st century also has been a period of ambitious growth. In 2004, the museum expanded again into the former Buhl Planetarium building next door. The museum exceeded its goal in the $28 million capital campaign that funded the expansion, but there were challenges and hurdles, recalls then-board president Anne Lewis, who led the expansion effort and who is now board member emeritus.
“The long-term vision was always to create a community for kids,” Lewis says. “That meant the entire area needed to be brought back with economic development. We knew we had to become the leader and the catalyst for change.”
“The expansion allowed us to do things we’ve always dreamed of doing,” says Children’s Museum executive director Jane Werner.
Increased exhibition space and parking space have raised attendance: This year, the museum set a new attendance record, with a projected 228,000 admissions for the current fiscal year, which ends June 30.
“People are looking at the Children’s Museum as a new model of how to do children’s museums,” Werner says. “It’s been really fun to push those boundaries and try different things. We’ve enjoyed working with artists and taking chances.”
The museum places high priority on designing and building its own exhibits. “In the ’80s, people started to drift away from that and go with outside consultants,” Werner says. “We decided that we really wanted to stay in-house and make sure that our exhibits worked. We’ve gone back to that, and I think people are seeing the value in it.”
Looking ahead to the future, the museum and its neighboring institutions are poised for new growth. The Children’s Museum is in the middle of a $22 million capital campaign to raise the funds to create a green park space in the plaza area in front of the museum, extending the kid- and family-friendly environment outdoors and creating an example of how urban spaces can be green by using bioswales — landscaping elements that use plants to remove pollutants from runoff.
The Children’s Museum is also spearheading the Charm Bracelet Project, an effort to link North Side cultural organizations and create a unified cultural district in that neighborhood.
Lewis is enthusiastic about the museum’s future plans. “You want to bring that experience outside, so that synergy between inside and what’s outside becomes welcoming for kids.”