Children’s Museum to stay closed, but active online, through year’s end

Museum hasn’t stopped offering educational programs to local kids. 
The Madison Children's Museum's rooftop Garden, with its large blue giraffe statue.
Photo courtesy of Cheryl DeWelt
The Madison Children's Museum's rooftop garden is being cared for by staff while the building remains closed to the public.

The Madison Children’s Museum — known for interactive play spaces, arts and crafts and a rooftop garden full of plants and animals closed its doors to the public on March 14 in response to the coronavirus. Yet the museum hasn’t stopped offering educational programs to local kids. 

The museum launched Madison Children’s Museum at Home which shifted some of the museum’s most popular programs to the virtual world after it closed. Educators at the museum, both volunteer and staff, create weekly YouTube videos about music, science and storytelling. The museum’s blog details a variety of at-home activities for kids, including a scavenger hunt.

The team at the museum has been working to incorporate active play and education into their online programming, according to Kia Karlen, the museum’s director of education.

“We’ll be closed longer than we had imagined back in March,” Karlen says. “We’re really focused on keeping the museum able to open strong when it’s safe to do so. And in the meantime, to do the best work we can for our community with the smaller crew that we have.” 

Staff members have also painted more than 300 hopscotch games on sidewalks in 64 neighborhoods throughout Dane County. And a mobile exhibit about renewable energy is still in the works, says museum president and CEO Deborah Gilpin.

The virtual version of the museum is here to stay — at least until Jan. 1, 2021, Gilpin says.

While the museum could legally reopen under Dane county’s phased reopening plan, the museum wants to ensure the safety of kids and families by sticking to the science and abiding by the best public health practices, Karlen says. 

The pandemic has dealt a huge financial hit to the museum. The museum’s annual budget is usually just over $3 million. But due to the coronavirus, Gilpin says she expects the museum to bring in $1 million this year.

Contributions accounted for 60% of the museum’s income last yearand Gilpin says that the museum is going to need more community support to eventually reopen. Much of the museum’s revenue comes from events, admissions and rentals of the museum’s property, according to the museum’s annual report. And these events have a big impact on the greater Madison economy, Gilpin says, by attracting tourists and wedding parties.

“We’ve cut to the bone on all of our expenses,” Gilpin says. “We have to be able to retain, bring back and [hire] new staff to bring [the museum] to life again — to bring it fully to life again — and that’s not a small challenge.”

In March, the museum furloughed most of its staff and reduced the hours of those who remained, according to the museum’s website. In all, 53 people lost their jobs at the museum and the remaining 21 now work part time, according to Gilpin. A CARES Act Payroll Protection Program loan of about $400,000 helped the museum pay for staffing and other operating costs for eight weeks, but the money ran out in mid-June, Karlen says.

But this iconic Madison museum is not going anywhere. Gilpin and Karlen described the museum’s July 21 board meeting as hopeful. Gilpin is particularly confident that the museum has a strong support in Madison.  

Staff and volunteers are among those supporting the museumOne of the museum’s once-contracted artists — Junko Yamauchi, a local preschool teacher — now volunteers her time to record “Music with Junebug” videos for the museum’s YouTube page.

“I really appreciate their having me [and] giving me time to share my experience and what I can do,” says Yamauchi. “I really appreciate Madison Children’s Museum.” 

While the transition to online was hard initially, Yamauchi says she’s started to enjoy making her videos and is more comfortable on cameraShe tries to keep her videos energetic and exciting so the kids stay engaged.

She says she appreciates the comments left for her on the museum’s Facebook page. Those comments are really nice and they make me keep going,” Yamauchi says.  

Yamauchi is currently working at a summer camp. But with the help of a ring light provided by the museum, she makes her videos in the eveningsShe says she hopes to be back inside the museum one day so she can continue her music program in person and see her friends on staff. 

Cheryl DeWelt, the environmental education manager at the Children’s Museum, has also been making videos with some shot in the museum’s rooftop garden. 

The rooftop of Madison Children's Museum, home to many plants and trees.

Photo courtesy Cheryl DeWelt

When the museum closed, several of the animals kept there had to be relocated with staff in their homes

“Kids who enjoy coming to our rooftop know that we have geckosa bearded dragonthree turtlesrabbits and chickens. All of those animals are being cared for by staff. One former staff member took one of the turtles indefinitely until we can reopen the museum, Karlen says. 

The homing pigeons remained with DeWelt attending to them on their rooftop roost.  

DeWelt, a museum employee for the past 10 years, is one of the few staff members still working at the museum’s downtown location. She tries to include the museum’s exhibits in her videos so that, even remotely, people know that the children’s museum hasn’t disappeared 

The transition to making videos rather than teaching kids in person was hard at first, DeWelt says, but another adjustment was seeing the museum after the staff had turned out the lights. 

“You’re so used to this joy that comes from the children and the families and the playing and the laughter. It’s such a place of happiness,” DeWelt says. “And then to be there just alone and it’s dark and it’s quiet — it definitely took a little adjusting.” 

In her videos, DeWelt works to incorporate things for parents to do, and covers topics from photosynthesis to mimicking spider webs with a tree branch and twine. She’s adjusted to life at the now empty museum, she says, and is hopeful for the day when it does reopen. 

“Now I go in and I go straight up to the rooftop where the sun’s shining and its full of beautiful flowers and trees,” says DeWelt. “I do look forward to opening because right now I think anyone with children [is thinking] of what you can do with them and it’s so fun if you can take them somewhere that’s really exciting.”  

Someday, this, too, will end, she adds. 

Celia Young is an editorial intern at Madison Magazine.