Smile Politely

Champaign-Urbana needs more out of a children’s museum

A few weeks ago, Spark Play Café and Museum announced it was closing, much to the chagrin of parents who’d purchased memberships, and looked to it as another opportunity to get their young children out of the house and active. The Orpheum Children’s Science Museum celebrated their 25th anniversary not long after, and as much as we have love for the Orpheum and some of the offerings that they have for kids in our community, let’s face the unfortunate facts: This community is sorely lacking in an enticing children’s museum that is not only educational, but fun. And it’s a shame.

Only half of this editorial board is of the parental variety, but we all agree, and hopefully you as community members and stakeholders can agree, that something of this nature is a vital component to a healthy, growing, diverse community such as ours. We’ve been rather critical of Champaign-Urbana at times, especially in this space (see here and here), but we love this community, and want to see it live up to its potential. We’ve got the flagship state university and thriving local businesses; spaces meant specifically for families should be part of that.

The Orpheum Museum does offer a lot of great programming. There are many opportunities for kids to participate in science and technology related camps, and specialty events such as the Snow Globe, the Kids Building Fair, and their upcoming Astronomy Day. It functions well as an event space for the grown up set, including the recent Science for All lectures, the DoCha Chamber Music Festival, and 40 North’s Untitled events. But if you’re bringing your kids to spend some time exploring the everyday exhibits, you will probably leave wanting more. Part of the problem is the building itself. A historic theater is not the ideal set-up for an exploration space, and the efforts to preserve the look of the theater itself have been to its detriment as a place for kids. It’s not spacious, it’s not bright and inviting, and it’s constrictive in how it can be arranged and the size of exhibits that could be offered. And let’s talk about the exhibits. The ongoing exhibits are interesting enough for a single visit, but not enticing enough to have your kids begging to go back again and again. Hopefully their new Astronomy exhibit will be a welcome addition.

Spark was another story. The Spark Museum and Play Café was a concept with a different focus. It was not really a museum, but a playspace that invited meetups with other parents where they could eat, drink, and chat while their toddlers and preschoolers could play in a safe, visible place. It was another place to go to get the kids out of the house, but not much more than that. Nevertheless, families purchased annual memberships which have yet to be reimbursed after Spark’s abrupt closing. It lasted less than a year, and that’s honestly not surprising given its location, and given the lack of response from management regarding purchased memberships, mismanagement may have been a factor as well.

A community of our size is not going to have the spectacular museums found in larger cities, such as the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, or The Magic House or Science Center in St. Louis. It seems, however, that you can travel to several cities of comparable size in central Illinois and find thriving, interesting, engaging spaces that are well-funded and supported by their communities. Let’s look at two of those.

Photo of Children’s Discovery Center from Facebook

The Children’s Discovery Center in Normal is an easy place to start—twin cities, state university town, comparable size, and this place far exceeds anything we have here. Three full floors of exhibits, touching on science (water table, wind tunnels, farming in Illinois), art (painting on windows, puppet theater, play stage and costumes), and realistic play (pizza making, grocery shopping, doctor’s office). A family can easily spend two hours exhausting their kids. They’ve recently been home to a traveling Japan exhibit, thanks to a $15,000 grant from the Freeman Foundation Asian Culture Exhibit Series Tour and a $4,000 grant from the Illinois Prairie Community Foundation — Laura Sullivan Arts and Culture Endowment. Their hands-on medical exhibit is founded yearly by a Doctors in Concert benefit.

Photo from Discovery Depot website

A truly astonishing example is the Discovery Depot in Galesburg. Yes, Galesburg. For those not familiar with Galesburg, it’s a town of around 30,000, and does not have much going for it economically. It’s a railroad town whose economic downturn was exacerbated by the closing of it’s Maytag factory in the early 2000s. And yet, The Discovery Depot, which has occupied a 100 year old creamery for over 20 years, after an $800,000 renovation in 2013, is prepared to launch a $1.7 million expansion that is basically completely funded, partially with help from the City of Galesburg, but mostly from private donors. OSF St. Mary’s & Children’s Hospital of Illinois is helping bring a full science lab to the museum.

The idea of expanding the Orpheum has been proposed in the not so distant past, but that has gone by the wayside as plans have developed for a downtown conference center and sports facility, including the opportunity for a D1 hockey team.

Photo of butterfly garden from Illinois News Bureau

We would love to see a children’s museum to which visitors from out of town flock, just as residents of C-U seek out the Normal museum. The Orpheum has made good use of University partnerships; many of their exhibits have materialized through some sort of connection with a student groups.The Entomology Graduate Student Association at UIUC established a butterfly garden in 2016, the same year the Archaeology Student Society at UIUC designed an Archaeology Field Station for the museum. The new astronomy exhibit was designed by the Mechanical Engineering Senior Capstone students at UIUC. These are great connections with the immense resources we have in the university. But to really create a entity that that is top notch, big money is key.

According to the Orpheum’s 2017 annual report, just 5% of their income came in the form of grants and donations. According to information provided by the Orpheum, they have a vision for the next 25 years that includes “new/enhanced partnerships and new revenue sources (e.g., grants, foundations).” We hope to see that materialize through their efforts and a willingness of community sponsors and donors to seize an opportunity to showcase their dedication to families in C-U. What if there was a medical clinic exhibit funded through a partnership with Christie, or Carle, or Presence? What if there was a pizza making and delivery station set up through a partnership with Papa Del’s or Monical’s? How about an exhibit sponsored by First Busey Corporation? The possibilities are there, they just need to be sought out, and embraced by those who have the means to invest in the community. We have a solid foundation in the dedicated staff at The Orpheum and in the desire by families to support and sustain a dynamic, compelling, and educational space for children. We have a little, but we just need more: More donors, more partnerships, more public engagement, more community members invested, more hands-on, more pretend play, more climbing, more color, more fun.

Cover photo by Sheena Spikes

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