Text and photos: Javier Pinzón
The big blue doors of the Louisiana Children’s Museum will soon be closed forever. When it opened in 1986, this iconic museum became one of the city’s main attractions for children and visitors alike. For more than thirty years, in the museum’s 30,000 square feet of exhibit space, the aim was to inspire children and strengthen their abilities through play, shared explorations, and dialogue with adults. Now, with the new museum, the goals are even greater.
While we walk through the old halls of the original museum, Julia Bland, CEO of the organization, tells us how the project has changed over the years.
Accompanied by my little Isabella, we walk through the bubbles area and past the fire truck, the ambulance, the grocery store, and the miniature port of New Orleans. We finish at the Talk and Play Center, where Isabella enjoys looking at a large illustrated book, but not before first going to Art Trek to paint a picture for her abu (grandma).
When and how was it decided that New Orleans needed a new children’s museum? Julia tells us that in 2004 the museum began reflecting on how it could better benefit the community and share the resources the city offers with families. In 2005, a focus group was convened to identify what was needed and how the museum could reach out to the parents of young children. A plan was created to bring together scholars from different fields, such as nutrition, pediatrics, early childhood development, outdoor games, nature, and many other areas, but two weeks after the design was finalized, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans.
Physical and spiritual recovery ensued and the museum felt compelled to reimagine the plan. Remodeling the museum was no longer enough. The work team began to think big: how do we reinvent education and medical care? How do we rethink our neighborhoods? How do we learn best practices to manage water? The idea of doing something very visible, very well located, and in a beautiful environment began to surface.
The central goal was to change the way adults think about children: how should we invest monetary resources, education, planning, and policies to benefit children and where will this take us in ten, twenty, or forty years? The museum planners spoke with the director of the 1,300-acre City Park, which was also flooded as a result of Katrina. The park had sustained millions of dollars in losses and had not received any aid, leaving it with no money to pay its bills and much less to care for the land. Nevertheless, the park’s management listened to the museum’s ideas and said:
“We don’t know if we will be able to revive the park, but we are interested.” Eventually, the museum became part of the park’s master plan and together they began to look for resources. It took twelve years and an investment of 47.5 million dollars, but their dream is about to see the light of day: the new museum will open its doors in September.
The museum went from being in a 30,000 square foot space to occupying eight and a half acres, in addition to a having a surrounding green area. One of the biggest changes can be found in the education area, which went from two full-time employees to eleven because there is so much the museum wants to communicate and develop.
According to Julia, the new museum will not only be a place to play, but also to learn and grow in a new way. It will be a resource to support parents and caregivers of children while celebrating the incredible capacities of young children with a wide variety of approaches.
The museum will have five interactive exhibitions: “Play with Me,” where babies and toddlers (ages three and younger) can explore the surroundings while parents receive support on their journey as the children’s first teachers. “Follow This Food,” which will take the children on a playful journey through the food of Louisiana, starting in the fields and coastal waters, with stops at the market, the kitchen, and the cafeteria before finally making it to the family table. “Dig into Nature,” where children will discover the abundance of the unique natural resources of Louisiana and the Gulf coast region. “Make Your Mark,” which celebrates New Orleans’s rich art traditions and its architectural, musical, historical, and cultural heritage. Outside is the exhibit “Characteristics of the Landscape,” where children can discover Uncle Bo’s Sensory Garden.
Other new additions to the museum will include a life-size interactive checker board that celebrates culture while broadcasting the distinctive sounds of each of New Orleans’s neighborhoods. There is also a powerful 98-foot long water display of the Mississippi, which tells the story of the river from its source in the twin cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul, through its twists and turns, to where it empties into the port of New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico.
In addition, landscape architects have planted more than 125 species of plants to repopulate the landscape with native trees and shrubs and create a floating bio-island made of recycled materials that is designed to attract wildlife.
In September, New Orleans will say goodbye to the blue doors of the old museum and welcome children into the new space in City Park. This dream, which has now become a reality, will pay off when the adults of tomorrow, more aware of their environment, will be better able to understand it and protect it.