by Jessica Walker
Take priceless artwork with “Do Not Touch” signs and silent halls filled with onlookers, mix them together, and going to a museum becomes a child’s nightmare. By the end of the day, even the sanest toddler–or parent–can be driven to a meltdown.
The opposite is true at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, where playing with the exhibits is expected and encouraged. Its mission is to provide innovative museum experiences that inspire creativity and curiosity. Whether jumping in water fountains or building structures out of nuts and bolts, anyone from the young to the young-at-heart can find an activity to enjoy.
“Children can appreciate good design as well as adults,” says executive director Jane Werner. “A 4-year-old might find an activity exciting for a particular reason, a 10-year-old for another, and a grandparent for yet another. We [the museum] really are for everyone.”
The Children’s Museum commits to creating functional and welcoming spaces for its multigenerational visitors, who total more than 270,000 annually. The exhibits are designed and built in-house, and incorporate real materials to foster learning.
One of the most popular areas is the Waterplay exhibit. Housed on the third floor, it features water fountains, vortexes, dam building stations, and shaved ice tables. Children learn important science principles such as water texture and buoyancy while getting a little wet in the process.
“Seeing toddlers sitting right in the fountains, puddles of water around them, never fails to make me laugh out loud,” says Werner. “There’s just such joy on their faces.”
For patrons who like mixing play with functionality, the MAKESHOP is a short journey downstairs. From woodworking and circuitry to stop-motion and green screen animation, the workshop space has been keeping hands busy since 2011. Visiting crafters and inventors also lend their expertise to help children and families transform their ideas into physical constructions. Whether assembling a birdhouse from recycled wood or a pillow from fabric scraps, all the MAKESHOP’s materials require is a little creativity.
Instead of spending an afternoon passively perusing a gallery of paintings, why not come to the Children’s Museum to create your own masterpiece? The Studio is a permanent exhibit for visitors to experiment with multimedia art forms such as screen-printing and still life drawing. An accessible-to-all pottery wheel allows anyone of any experience or ability level to throw clay.
“We try to stay as fresh as possible in our approach,” says Werner. “The way children learn is so varied. By giving hands-on activities, they’re discovering how to question their world in a unique way.”
“You can’t fail a museum,” she adds, noting that museums have an incredible opportunity to try learning approaches that a traditional classroom might not be able to. For its part, the Children’s Museum offers field trips, summer camps, and customized classroom programs that reach students throughout the Pittsburgh area. Inspired by the MAKESHOP, makerspaces have even been incorporated in schools and libraries to promote a love for science, programming, and engineering.
Throughout its lifetime, the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh has grown from 20,000 square feet to 80,000 square feet in what once was a post office building on the North Shore. It now shares its home with a public school, a family radio program, and a nonprofit literacy organization. The museum also plans to open what it calls a Museum Lab next door, in the former Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh’s Allegheny Regional branch. The 45,000-square-foot lab will be used to further integrate informal learning experiences with formal school education. According to Werner, it will be the largest center of its kind in the United States upon completion.
With an extensive outreach and additional plans for expansion, patrons might have difficulty believing that the Children’s Museum had a rough start after its foundation in the 1980s. It started as a tenant in the basement of its current building, and experienced financial struggles. Werner says grants and support from the Hillman Foundation helped the museum thrive, both then and now. “We’ve had a great relationship over the years, and I couldn’t be more grateful.”
Even outside of its educational opportunities, the Children’s Museum provides “a safe space for families to be together and experience new things.” Werner recalls a father who approached her after viewing one of the temporary exhibits that focused on forgiveness and love. He told her that, despite telling his kids every day that he loves them, viewing this exhibit was the first time the family sat down and discussed what love actually means.
“One of my favorite times of the day is at closing when I see families on our porch swing, talking about what they just experienced,” she says.
The Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh is the place to embrace childlike imagination and creativity at any age. Curious about everything the museum has to offer? Werner has just a few short words: “Come on down!”