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The Please Touch Museum and children’s museums everywhere wonder: What now?

Once tactile and crowded, interactive spaces for families must re-imagine what “hands-on” will look like now.

Before Covid-19, the Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia focused on providing children a place to, well, touch everything and learn. It has yet to reopen after lockdowns.
Courtesy of the Please Touch Museum

Part of The Museums Issue of The Highlight, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world.

On a typical day at the Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia, hundreds of children might have pushed miniature carts brimming with plastic replicas of apples, cereal boxes, and bread as they explored the aisles of a kid-sized grocery store.

The children’s museum’s market exhibition has existed, in some form, for more than four decades, part of “Healthy Me,” the most popular, and perhaps most important exhibit at Please Touch. Along with a kid-sized bistro, hospital, and garden, the display is designed to teach kids decision-making and collaboration.

But today, amid a global pandemic, all the interaction in the market — collaborative, touchy, in close and public quarters — could cause anxiety for plenty of parents. It’s why, months after its closure along with other arts and entertainment venues across the nation, the museum has remained shuttered, forced to consider a new approach to reopening.

The task for the Please Touch Museum and other interactive children’s attractions is daunting in the time of Covid-19. Championed for their interactive, tactile approach to play and education, children’s museums have grown exponentially in the past two decades, contributing $5.5 billion to US economic activity in 2016.

Research has shown that hands-on learning is critical for children. But now, many of these institutions, including Brooklyn Children’s Museum and the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, must imagine what “hands-on” will look like in the future, how children will interact with these exhibitions and each other — and how it will all affect their revenue.

“The two categories of museums that are most vulnerable right now are children’s museums, and science and technology museums,” says Elizabeth Merritt, founding director of the American Alliance of Museums’ Center for the Future of Museums. Merritt cites two reasons. One is that they tend to get a very high percentage of their income from ticket sales, memberships, gift shops, and events such as birthday parties and school visits — all of which came to a standstill for months during the pandemic.

The other problem: “They’re very hands-on,” says Merritt. “So they have bigger challenges, when they can open, in thinking about how they’re going to adapt their operations in a way that’s safe.”

Keeping kids from spreading germs while playing was something that children’s museums were always aware of, directors of such institutions say. Now, the stakes are heightened. The varying nature of safety regulations, differing by municipality, have made the virus’s effects on museums largely dependent on location. Limited capacity guidelines coupled with extra staff for new cleaning protocols means that, for some museums, reopening would come at a financial deficit.

“Children’s museums as a whole are really very equipped and focused on dealing with germs, dealing with kids 8 and under. And so we’ve been doing this work for a century, or more,” says Patricia Wellenbach, chief executive of Please Touch, citing the Boston Children’s Museum’s handling of the 1918 pandemic as an example.

“The biggest challenge of being closed, I’d say, is that the museums don’t bring in any revenue,” Wellenbach continues. “And we don’t know how comfortable people will be coming back into these spaces.”

Some children’s museums have already closed their doors permanently. These include the Orpheum Children’s Science Museum in Champaign, Illinois, and two of the four locations of the Children’s Museum of Richmond in Virginia.

The Please Touch Museum, which plans to reopen next year, is one of a number of museums that took drastic measures to stay afloat. Typically, as many as 500,000 people visit annually. At the time of its closure, 85 percent of its revenue came from general admissions, memberships, private events, and corporate meetings, says Wellenbach. With tens of millions of dollars lost in the financial free-fall of the ensuing months, the museum laid off 75 percent of its staff.

“Financially, children’s museums are finding a way forward. But there is no way around the pandemic. And the lack of relief funds, and the inconsistency of local regulations on how to safely reopen, has been financially devastating to our community,” said Laura Huerta Migus, executive director of the Association of Children’s Museums. “They have essentially lost the equivalent of about six months of their yearly revenue that they will never recoup.”

With membership of more than 300 children’s museums globally, Huerta Migus describes “a slow road” to rehiring and rebuilding a community that, post-Covid, “will be leaner in all ways.”

Of the 72 children’s museums that reported to the Association of Children’s Museums how long their financial reserves could support their institutions, she says, the average length was nine months. The virus, she says, has caused a “significant and catastrophic disruption” to the industry.

“It’s been a really hard few months from a financial perspective to make things work,” concedes Children’s Museum of Indianapolis’s chief executive Jeffrey Patchen. “But we’re working at it.” The largest museum of its kind, it reopened in June and used its $320 million endowment to prevent laying off the majority of its more than 400 employees.

The dinosaurs outside the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, which reopened in October, now don masks, much like the kids who visit.
Courtesy of the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis

But the institution that had a $40 million annual budget pre-Covid-19 will find itself at a $14 million deficit by the end of the year. On the upside, advised by an executive task force and medical advisory committee that included doctors and researchers in the area, the museum has reimagined the way that children can learn.

It reengineered its indoor exhibits to be less crowded and touch-oriented, closing those displays that were highly tactile and had hard-to-clean objects. The museum also hired more actor-interpreters, individuals who engage with visitors in exhibits to use their imaginations more while discouraging touching. And it has increased its virtual presence.

“That’s really important as we think about the future of our museum and the children’s museum sector,” Patchen says.

Other museums have also adapted. The Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose has opened its Facebook feed to livestream events and online story times for kids. Louisiana Children’s Museum partnered with the Tulane Institute of Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health to launch a webinar series for adults about mental health for caregivers and their children. The National Children’s Museum in Washington, DC, launched a monthly podcast about STEAM innovators.

“There is one silver lining to the pandemic — it forced us into real 21st century engagement as a community,” says Huerta Migus. “I think we’re definitely going to see some new, innovative exhibits that come out, for sure. That is a definite yes.”

The Brooklyn Children’s Museum has held virtual activities and also focused on making activity kits to deliver through public schools and community organizations for families who might not have internet access. But for the museum leadership, the interactive aspects of the museum remain a crucial part of the mission. Since October 24, it has opened for in-person exhibitions indoors with increased air circulation and hour-long cleanings after every 90-minute play session.

“It remains critically important that we understand that children learn during these sensory experiences, and they learn through engaging with other children and other people,” said Stephanie Wilchfort, chief executive of Brooklyn Children’s Museum. “There are incredible opportunities for online learning, but real interaction will also continue to be incredibly valuable.”

At Please Touch, plans to open will be dependent on factors such as when students return to school — increasingly unclear as Covid-19 cases rise at record highs across the country.

Still, Wellenbach remains positive. Citing a 2015 bankruptcy as one of many obstacles the museum has surmounted, she says she’s certain of the museum’s ability to thrive again, though she acknowledges “the challenges might be a little bigger.”

“Our museum in Philadelphia has faced challenges before,” Wellenbach says. “And we’ve always shown a level of grit and resiliency and an ability to recover from it.”

Lindsey Norward is a freelance journalist based in Philadelphia. She primarily writes about history, culture, and media. She previously wrote about the controversial 1985 bombing by the city of Philadelphia for The Highlight.

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