In 2007, two women in our community had a vision to develop a Children’s Museum in the Twin Cities area of Lewis County. This desire was driven by the need for a hands-on learning center where families can conveniently explore and lean in a creative and fun-filled environment. There are no family activity facilities in the Chehalis-Centralia area with a focus on education. During winter months there are few activities for families, and many families travel outside the County to visit similar facilities.
This need was clearly understood by the consultant who developed the Chehalis Renaissance Plan in 2009 and he included a recommendation to develop a Children’s Museum in the plan. After the plan was adopted by the Chehalis City Council, the Chehalis Community Renaissance Team (CCRT) included the Children’s Museum as one of their many tasks to accomplish. In late 2009 members of the CCRT partnered up with the original visioners, and additional volunteers, to form a Children’s Museum advisory group. This six member advisory droup operates under the Friends of Chehalis Community Renaissance – a 501(c)(3) organization.
What Research has been done?
Since day one there has been an objective approach to evaluating the feasibility of locating a Children’s Museum in this community. Extensive research has been completed over the past 3.5 years. The advisory group joined the Association of Children’s Museum (ACM) which has been a tremendous resource. The ACM truly serves as a resource for all Children’s Museum and not simply a membership organization; they are impressive when compared to other industry associations. The ACM’s publication, Collective Vision:Starting and Sustaining a Children’s Museum, has been referred to many times to gain guidance through the planning process. The ACM collects metrics data from all museum members on multiple data points. We were able to review this data for museums in similar sized communities and extrapolate the data to estimate overall attendance to build an estimated operating budget. Also utilizing this data, an extensive market analysis was developed to study the attractiveness of the Children’s Museum in our area. The analysis concluded that a western Lewis County region could support a Children’s Museum facility with a 103% ratio of Contributed Income to Earned Income. The expected annual attendance would be slightly greater than 21,000.
The ACM holds a national conference every year and coincidentally the 2012 conference was held in Portland, Oregon. The conference is well regarded with all members we spoke to and this year it included over 100 sessions spanning four days. A special pre-conference was offered to emerging museums. Two representatives of our advisory board attended the conference. A wealth of knowledge was returned.
The group held an invitational public brainstorming session in May 2010 to seek input from stakeholders on the reasons for a Children’s Museum, what a Children’s Museum should look like in our community, what it should not look like, and what would their vision of a Children’s Museum in our community be? We were pleased to find out the majority of our planning was in line with the vision of future stakeholders and all additional input has been incorporated into our planning.
Over the past few years we have participated in many public functions to gain awareness for the museum project. Our largest involvement has been the Southwest Washington Fair. We have designed and built two extensive interactive exhibits, collectively costing $10,000, to display during the fair prior to the pilot museum opening. These exhibits have served as a great educational tool in exhibit building along with how children interact with the exhibits.
An important step completed was the development of our mission and vision statement for the Children’s Museum. Along with this planning came the official name: Discover! Children’s Museum. Check out our mission, vision, and goals here: http://www.discovermuseum.org/about.html#Mission
The group conducted phone interviews with six museums in similar sized communities to discuss their revenue sources, impact of the recession, school and education programs, contributed income sources, challenges to serving children over 10 years of age, exhibit sponsorship, new facilities, difficulties running a museum, poor uses of money, staff makeup, and any open advice. A common theme from the successful museum was they all began with a pilot project before jumping into a full museum. These pilot projects allowed them to test the waters in their community and gain vital support before starting up a large operation.
Therefore we created Discover! Children’s Museum Pilot Project
Based on the input of experienced successful museums, a pilot project project was opened in February 2013 to highlight a local Children’s Museum opportunity. The pilot project was a scaled down version, only 4,000 square feet, located in the Twin Cities Town
Center. There were a total of twelve exhibits for children to interact with, in addition to many Weekend Warrior events that were held by the Children’s Museum itself or local groups that interacted with our young visitors.
In the early stages of preparation, the committee spent much time developing job descriptions and selecting staff. A volunteer Coordinator was recruited and we found to be essential to the pilot project, in order to find and arrange volunteers throughout the eleven months the pilot museum operated as well as for events outside the museum.
The goal of the pilot project was to obtain results and measurable objectives. Through the eleven months of operation, these were some of our findings.
- Attendance started well above anticipated pace and stayed that way
- Volunteer support was wonderful, leaving Discover! to only have 1.5 paid positions during the course of the pilot
- Director Marilynn Chintella connected Discover! to many schools and children service, which led Discover! being a host to 700 students
- Our anticipated six month pilot extended to eleven months
- Paid attendance was 15,500, which was triple our expectation
There were also some things that we learned through operating the pilot project.
- We understand how to design the space, where children and parents feel safe and comfortable
- We know the most efficient ways to operate a safe and healthy facility
- We found that the community is a part of our team. As they demonstrated by helping us with renovations, exhibit construction, volunteering hours throughout operation, as well as participating in the breakdown and clean up of the pilot.
- All of the data collected supported our feasibility study
- Our mission of “Education First” was validated
- Location really matters, since 35% of visits were serendipitous
So where do we go from here. Check that out on our next blog! What’s the Next Step?