Play Ground

The Minnesota Children’s Museum marks 25 years with the creation of a new exhibit

AT THE BLUE RHINO STUDIO in Eagan, the paint has finished drying on a pint-size desk, animal coops have been fitted with doors, and the steel ribs of a space rocket have been welded together. All in preparation for “Curious George: Let’s Get Curious!”, opening this month at the Minnesota Children’s Museum (MCM) in St. Paul, where kids will be yanking on pulleys to help George wash the windows of the apartment he shares with the Man with the Yellow Hat—learning physics as they play.

The displays may look like theater sets, but hands-on exhibits are a lot more complex to construct: These involved nearly two years of work by the museum’s design and development team, local fabricators (including Blue Rhino), and groups of kid testers. The team evaluated basic exhibit criteria: Are the instructions clear? Do the components function? Is the activity engaging? In addition, the team considered kid-specific standards: Can the exhibit be operated by tykes without fine motor skills? Will they find it scary?

It’s a lot to keep track of. But with 25 years of experience in encouraging children to learn as they play, MCM does it better than most. MCM has one of the largest memberships of any children’s museum in the country and its success, in part, can be attributed to the traveling exhibits it creates, including “Adventures with Clifford the Big Red Dog,” which was voted the most popular traveling exhibit of 2005 by the Association of Children’s Museums.

Exhibit design is an expensive and time-consuming process—“Curious George” involved three full-time designers and developers, three outside fabrication shops, and a budget that topped $1 million. An exhibit must be extremely durable, as well as easy to disassemble and pack, if it’s going to survive five years of travel to museums around the country. “Basically, 2 to 3 million kids are going to climb on it,” says Peter Olson, who manages the museum’s traveling exhibits.

Most children’s museums borrow exhibits created by other museums or fabrication companies. But MCM has its own design staff and prototype shop, which has its advantages: museum staff understand how kids interact with exhibits, and it’s easy to test prototypes—just set them out in the gallery and see what kids do. MCM also generates revenue by renting its exhibits to other museums (it will cost $70,000 to rent “Curious George” for three months). By rotating exhibits every few months, the museum can encourage members to return more often and reach out to new audiences.

Curious George was a natural exhibit topic: He’s an icon known to parents, a kid favorite, and the has inquisitiveness of a child. While the exhibit references the original books by H. A. and Margret Rey, it draws more from a recent PBS KIDS television series. Whereas old George puffed on a pipe and got tossed in jail, new George teaches kids about math, science, and engineering. While George may still be mischievous, he is, as always, goodhearted. “He can be naughty but he’s never bad,” explains Sarah Caruso, the museum’s president.

The plucky primate even underwent a makeover for his television debut—he now has softer, more expressive features, and a spiky tuft of hair. When Blue Rhino sculpted a 3-D version of George for the MCM exhibit, the size of his eyes and the curve of his ears had to be approved by the series’ producers.

If old George knew he’d become a brand controlled by corporate managers, he’d probably have ditched city life and headed back to Africa. But early childhood development has become big business. Children’s museums are sprouting up more quickly than any other type of cultural institution and have doubled their visitor numbers in the past decade. From its humble beginnings in 1981, charging $1.75 admission to visit a 5,000-square-foot facility, MCM has grown. It now occupies a 65,000-square-foot building that draws more than 400,000 people a year.

“By design, every inch of the museum helps develop cognitive, social, and emotional skills,” Caruso says. “We’ve designed learning into the fun.” Your job is to play miniature golf with George, or help him sort bananas—and enjoy your curious education.