Rochester children's museum aims to broaden its appeal to the whole family
With eyes toward the future, the Minnesota Children's Museum of Rochester is now testing the idea of evolving into a hybrid museum — one with expanded programming and learning opportunities for people of all ages.
The museum is undergoing a strategic impact planning process, with a goal of determining its next steps by early 2017. To discover and evaluate potential solutions, the museum has enlisted the help of 50 local volunteers representing a wide range of backgrounds and perspectives.
According to museum director Heidi Mestad, the museum will continue to offer experiential learning opportunities for children as its core function. However, she said the organization will need to "age up" and provide more "intergenerational experiences" in order to remain sustainable.
"We know there's a need for a children's museum in Rochester — no matter what," Mestad said in a recent interview. "But we also know that there's a need for more science, health and cultural identity for our community."
But a community of Rochester's size cannot support multiple stand-alone cultural institution, like a children's museum and science museum, Mestad said. Additionally, she noted that other nearby cities — such as Mankato and La Crosse — already have their own children's museums.
"Do we just want to create another fantastic children's museum or do we think we can create something a little more different here given our assets?" Those assets include health, wellness and science, she said.
In reinventing itself, the Rochester museum will likely take on a new name and a new location. It had previously expressed interest in the former Armory building downtown before pulling back to reevaluate its role in the community.
In our interview, Mestad said the timing was "too soon" (council is expected to discuss the two submissions for the Armory's future use this month) and more due diligence was needed before settling on a location. "Pretty soon the place was going to dictate our purpose, and that's the wrong way to go about it."
Mestad did confirm, though, that the museum is still exploring the downtown area as a potential site. "That doesn't mean we are going to go downtown, but we haven't leveraged the 3 million visitors here," she said. "So if we want to look at other streams, we can maximize impact with all of those visitors."
The Post-Bulletin reported this week that an ad hoc group of community leaders has been meeting privately to discuss the "potential for collaboration" between the children's museum, public library, Rochester Family YMCA and University of Minnesota Rochester. All four organizations have "discussed space and facility needs that could require expansion or relocation," the report says.
"My view is that if we can create a safe environment, an encouraging environment, to consider collaboration, they may come up with something that would be much more dynamic than what they would be able to do individually," Olmsted County Commissioner Sheila Kiscaden told the paper.
Mestad, who has met with the group, said it's a worthwhile effort anytime a community can discuss how to best "leverage assets to be more efficient and effective." However, she reiterated her position that the museum is still in the "discovery" stage and not yet in a position to make a decision on location.
Under Mestad, whose background is in anthropology, the museum is positioning itself to have a greater presence in the community — and that means getting outside its four walls and engaging people in informal ways.
"What we're good at is playful, experiential learning and creating experiences," said Mestad. "We know people learn better and retain 70 percent if they find that it's relevant to them. You usually do that if it's something fun or informal."
The organization has formed stronger partnerships with Olmsted County Public Health and the Boys & Girls Club, and just recently doubled its space inside the library. It also has plans to launch more community workshops and pop-up play exhibits, like this JUMBOJenga event at Forager Brewery in June.
"What we're trying to do is say: Play is really powerful — yes for kids but for adults, too."
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(Cover photo: Minnesota Children's Museum of Rochester)