Sunday, June 17, 2007

It's Time to Start Thinking About Cutting Our Losses

A couple of years ago our local paper asked former Toronto mayor John Sewell to come to Kitchener and say what he thought should be done to improve the downtown (a seedy strip of pawn shops and dance clubs that has resisted years of upgrade attempts). The comment I recall the clearest was about the Waterloo Regional Children's Museum. Sewell said it was a mistake and will be a drain on the city for years to come.

The Children's Museum is a spectacular failure and recent moves to turn it around will probably only increase the drain on city resources.

The museum has an unfortunate history. The brain child of a local artist, the museum's board of directors decided to change direction and fired the originator. The manager who took over was later fired. The planning and creation of the museum was plagued by infighting. No organization should leave such a toll of damaged careers and bitterness.

The result is plain crummy. The museum, probably in an attempt to attract school groups, is too boringly educational, and is aimed too much at science-oriented 9 year old boys. There are way too many signs telling children not to climb on an exhibit or not to touch. There's a great deal of empty space, and many of the exhibits are broken (or at least they were when I was there last year). The location is unfortunate: there are no other tourist sites within walking distance, and the street outside is more comfortable for the many residents of nearby half-way houses than for children. Even the pricing is poorly thought out: it's $7 for everyone aged 3-54, with no family discounts.

When the old Goudy's department store was revamped to make the museum, too much of the floor space was removed, leaving a huge trendy open space the height of the building and lots of railings. How cool it would have been if they had left the old wooden floors and multi-levelled little rooms; the coffee shop in the basement with the exotic wood grain in the high-backed booths; and (if I remember correctly) the pneumatic tubes that clerks used to send paperwork around the store.

Not surprisingly, the museum is not attracting many kids and is hemorrhaging money. Last year it spent over a quarter of its $4M endowment.

Now, in a desperate move to do something, the museum has partnered with the University of Waterloo's Canadian Centre of Arts and Technology to bring a multimedia center to the museum. UW is rumored to be contributing a million dollars to the project. The problem? Most of what they plan to offer is already available on base-price PCs. It may have been a great thrill 10 years ago for kids to have a place to film themselves and edit videos, but now they have access to that technology at home, school, even the library.

The K-W Record reports, "Another area of the new gallery will feature a video-conferencing classroom that would have the potential to link students to other children on the other side of the country or the world." Uh, geeze guys: Computer cameras cost less than a movie on DVD. Macs have cameras built-in. There are a ton of sites that facilitate kids talking to other kids around the world. Given the wide availability of computers, will kids want to go to a museum to sit at a keyboard? I don't think so.

I have been to some pretty cool children's museums, all unique, in Ottawa, Chattanooga and Memphis. The Ottawa one is in the Museum of Civilization, and one of the highlights is a replica cargo ship where little ones can pick up a pint-sized broom and swab the decks, while older ones can operate a crane to lift bales of cotton on and off the ship. Another fun part is an old-timey food market with stands full of plastic food that kids can toss around or juggle or otherwise play with. The Memphis children's museum includes the front end of a passenger plane that lets kids (and adults) try out the pilot's seat. None of this is overtly educational, but it's mind expanding and fun.

I wish the Waterloo Regional Children's Museum luck in turning things around and becoming a good destination for children, but I don't see it happening. There is an art to designing a good museum. Some of the best I've been to are the civil rights museums in Birmingham and Memphis and the Holocaust museums in Berlin and Washington, DC - all of which left me awe-struck at the innovative and varied approaches to being both educational and interesting. I don't have any illusions that I could design a museum, and I wonder whether the people running our Children's Museum have the necessary skills either.

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1 comment:

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