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NPR Arts & Life

So Much For 'Please Touch,' After COVID-19, Kids' Museums Will Be Less Hands-On

A life-sized dinosaur family wearing masks bursts from the walls of The Children's Museum of Indianapolis, the largest children's museum in the world.
A life-sized dinosaur family wearing masks bursts from the walls of The Children's Museum of Indianapolis, the largest children's museum in the world.

It's hard enough for any museum trying to reopen right now, but children's museums face especially tough challenges. (Especially those with names like Philadelphia's Please Touch Museum, the Hands On! Discovery Center in Gray, Tenn., and the Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum in Michigan.)

The biggest children's museums are fine for now — think San Francisco's Exploratorium, the Children's Museum of Indianapolis or the granddaddy of them all, the Brooklyn Children's Museum, which opened in 1899.

Children examine a salt marsh exhibition at San Francisco's Exploratorium before the coronavirus pandemic.
/ Exploratorium
Children examine a salt marsh exhibition at San Francisco's Exploratorium before the coronavirus pandemic.

But most children's museums are neither big nor famous. Several have permanently closed since the onset of COVID-19, including the Children's Museum of the Sierra in Oakhurst, Calif., the Orpheum Children's Science Museum in Champaign, Ill., and the Children's Museum of Richmond's branch in Fredericksburg, Va.

A worker at the Children's Museum of Richmond cleans an exhibit in preparation for the re-opening.
/ Children's Museum of Richmond
A worker at the Children's Museum of Richmond cleans an exhibit in preparation for the re-opening.

"It's heartbreaking," says that museum's president, Danielle Ripperton. She signed the paperwork and did a final walk through earlier in June.

The Fredericksburg location was one of four run by the Children's Museum of Richmond, which says it was the first to implement a multi-branch strategy. In the early days of the pandemic, Ripperton says, the museum was compelled to lay off 42 employees across its various locations — and Fredericksburg cost $350,000 dollars in operating costs every year. "If we kept all the locations, that means the organization would not survive," she says.

The Fredericksburg branch drew 40,000 visitors last year, but depended heavily on earned revenue. Seventy percent of the museum's income came from ticket sales, birthday parties and field trips, Ripperton says, all of which have entirely dried up. Since mid-June, the state of Virginia's allowed museums to reopen, at reduced capacity, but no interactive exhibits can be put to use.

"Which for a children's museum means there's almost nothing left," Ripperton observes.

There's no way to completely sanitize dig pits and sand boxes, where little kids love to play, and it's prohibitively expensive for small museums to conduct deep cleans between tiny groups of visitors and add handwashing stations. (Interestingly, water tables are less of a public health hazard — chlorination keeps them safe.)

Laura Huerta Migus, executive director of the Association of Children's Museums, says even among museums that have reopened, families seem to be staying away.

"If they're getting 10 percent or 20 percent of what their previous attendance was, that would be successful at this point," she says, adding that what's successful may not be sustainable for many children's museums over the next year. "We are very worried that our closure rate overall in the industry might approach 30 percent," she said.

That would translate to 100 museums permanently shuttering in the Association of Children's Museums alone. And the loss to communities would be considerable, Huerta Migus says. Right now, the Children's Museum of the Treasure Coast in southeast Florida and the KidsQuest Children's Museum of Bellevue, Wash., are partnering with food banks to pass out free remote educational kits to families without internet access. Others are working with schools to create extra classroom space. The Children's Museum of Eau Claire, Wis., deployed its staff to help city agencies with early childhood needs.

"When a children's museum goes away, it's not just a fun, beautiful venue that goes away," Huerta Migus says. "It's a central community resource."

Even in the best of times, one of the challenges for children's museums was that families would stop supporting them once their kids aged out. But children's museums teach kids that museums are for everyone ... and when they vanish, they take a certain kind of future with them.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Children experiment with a shadow box at San Francisco's Exploratorium before the coronavirus pandemic.
/ Exploratorium
Children experiment with a shadow box at San Francisco's Exploratorium before the coronavirus pandemic.