When the Omaha Children’s Museum was hit by the economic downturn, staff realized the current exhibit model needed to be reevaluated. Channeled through everyone from retail stores to libraries to construction companies, their innovative new strategy is now being studied by children’s museums across the country.
"Wait, do we need to stand it up first?"
At the Omaha Children's Museum late last spring, workers were beginning the process of installing the newest temporary exhibit, "The Wizard of Oz." Some were constructing an oven for Dorothy's Kansas farmhouse - though the printed directions were causing a few furrowed brows - while others zip-tied thick netting around a still-empty ball pit, and another group painted pillars.
"We've been talking about Wizard of Oz and planning for a long time, and as you can see, a lot of the construction takes place in the last several weeks," said Christina Kahler, director of marketing and public relations for the Children's Museum. "The exhibits come down, and we clear out the space, and then the rest has to go up quickly."
Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause,
Matt Walker, traveling exhibits coordinator for the Omaha Children's Museum, loads bricks for the yellow brick road, part of the "Wizard of Oz" exhibit this past summer.
TOP 10 TRAVELING EXHIBIT SPACES
The top 10 largest traveling exhibit spaces at museums geared toward children, according to the Association of Children's Museums:
1. Cincinnati Museum Center-Duke Energy Children's Museum: 26,250 square feet
2. The Children's Museum of Indianapolis: 22,700
3. COSI: 21,660
4. Fort Worth Museum of Science & History: 13,000
5. Omaha Children's Museum: 11,000
6. Mid-Michigan Children's Museum: 8,000
7. Liberty Science Center: 7,500
8. Exploration Place: 7,000
9. Boonshoft Museum of Discovery: 6,000
10. Minnesota Children's Museum, 5,800
Renting exhibits - sometimes for hundreds of thousands of dollars - has been the norm for most children's museums, including Omaha's. But when financial difficulties hit during the recession, something had to change.
"We took a hard look at our traveling exhibit program, and we thought, 'It's not sustainable to continue renting two to three of these a year,'" she said. "So, what could we do in place of them?"
The museum decided to build some of its own temporary exhibits, with community partners not only helping to pay, but also doing some of the work.
They still rent sometimes - last year's robotic dinosaurs exhibit was a rental, as is part of the Wizard of Oz. But the museum's temporary exhibit space is about four times as large as most children's museums, so by necessity, they've been forced in the past to get creative with the extra space.
These days, however, it's a choice.
The first entirely homegrown, collaborative exhibit was "Construction Zone," which opened in January of 2010 with help from area engineering and building firms.
"With construction zone, I mean, I think we were just hoping to fill it, and have it be good enough that people would pay to see it, and that they would enjoy it," Kahler said. "But it really did exceed all our expectations."
Since that first foray in DIY exhibits, the museum has received a $150,000 federal grant to expand on and document the process, in the hopes other children's museums could learn from Omaha's experiment.
The museum also created a new position to oversee the program: Matt Walker is the traveling exhibits coordinator, and his job includes everything from brainstorming future exhibit ideas to finding community partners.
By bringing businesses and community organizations into the design process, the museum can draw on outside expertise, Walker said.
"I think that we probably have a good feel of what maybe can be fun, and how to try and make things safe," he said, "but really, if we're talking to the Madonna Rehabilitation Center in Lincoln about the scarecrow and the brain, because they do brain and spinal cord rehabilitation, they're the experts on the science behind the brain. So if we want to do this teaching piece, they're going to be able to tell us some information that we're not going to know ourselves."
Kahler said about 15 to 20 partners sign on for each exhibit. For the Wizard of Oz, they included everything from public libraries to hot air balloon companies to Borsheim's, a jewelry store that's sponsoring - naturally - the Emerald City.
"They approached us. I thought it made perfect sense, and we were able to structure a really unique partnership so that both parties felt like they got engaged audiences from it," said Adrienne Fay, director of marketing and advertising for Borsheims.
The store hosted activities in the exhibit to teach about gemology, such as jewelry-making, a sand box to dig for oversized gems and child-friendly microscopes to examine stones up close. They also hosted activities outside the exhibit, like a free screening of the "Wizard of Oz" film.
"For me a, a community partnership is so much more than just putting Borsheim's logo as the presenting sponsor of an exhibit," Fay said.
And this is one of the reasons so many businesses are eager to participate. Walker said he's never had a company turn down the chance to be involved, and half the time, they seek out the museum themselves to see how they can help.
"I was really amazed - floored - by how much work, the lengths that some of the companies went to with the construction zone project," Walker said. "The idea that they could get 25 people from their company involved in all stages: The design, ordering the materials and figuring that out, doing some welding, driving the truck down here to deliver it, installing it. The idea that a company would go so far for the children's museum was really humbling."
Not only are the costs of producing the exhibits cut in half, Kahler said, but they can reuse pieces for future temporary exhibits or integrate them into the museum's permanent collection. Eventually, they'd like to start renting out some of their own exhibits.
But there are risks involved with having outsiders, so to speak, design activities for children.
Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause,
Omaha Children's Museum staff members work on the Wizard of Oz exhibit, opening May 26, 2012.
"You know, we do have to be a little more flexible, and let go of the reigns more than a lot of museums like to," Kahler said. "So we've just tried to embrace that, while still making sure that everything is safe and that everything is operating properly and those things. But you do have to be a little more flexible."
Diane Kopasz is the director of communications for the Association of Children's Museums, which counts about 300 members worldwide. She said while not every museum has space like Omaha's to build and host its own exhibits, its approach is gathering attention.
"I think what they're doing has proved to be very effective on many different levels," Kopasz said. "I'm not sure it can be duplicated exactly, but I think a lot of people in the children's museum field are going to be interested to see how it's working."
Kahler said the museum has seen a lot of interest in the program.
"We're constantly getting asked about how the program works and things like that, because I think it's completely fascinating that in the middle of America, we're making all this happen," she said, "and we're doing it on a limited budget and with lots of community support, and it's still really successful and revenue-generating."
Overall, Kahler said, the process is not only saving the museum hundreds of thousands of dollars, but is also building - in this case - a yellow brick road into the community.
"It's been a really amazing process, because not only have we created some of the most popular exhibits we've had at the museum to date, but we've made a lot more friends, and we have a lot more community excitement and awareness of what's happening with our traveling exhibit program."
Editor's note: This Signature Story is part of our "Best of 2012" series of reports, airing Dec. 24 to Dec. 28, 2012 on NET Radio, looking back at some of the most memorable Signature Stories from NET News throughout the year. It originally aired May 23.