GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Days after reopening to its members, the Grand Rapids Children’s Museum began welcoming the rest of the public through its doors Friday.
While visits to the educational play oasis halted on March 13, 2020, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the museum’s outreach was ongoing.
“All these kids need … even more play in their lives,” said Maggie Lancaster, CEO of the Grand Rapids Children’s Museum.
Museum workers hit the road in a “Kids Can” van purchased using donations from the Keller Foundation and Delta Dental. Lancaster said they distributed thousands of play-at-home kits in partnership with organizations like the Hispanic Center and Boys and Girls Clubs.
“From Detroit to the local Grand Rapids area to Muskegon, you name it, our van has been there,” she said.
The museum’s Facebook page also came alive with activities and ideas to keep kids engaged while they were away.
Inside the building, renovations also ramped up.
“Never in a time before have we made this much change in our museum. So they’re very excited,” Lancaster said of the museum’s employees. “And we’re so excited to have kids come in and enjoy all of our changes.”
Here are 10 differences you will likely notice the next time you step inside the museum:
NEW ACCESSIBLE SPIN ZONE, TRAIN TABLE AND BUBBLE AREA
EV Construction worked with the museum to create a new train table that children of all abilities can enjoy.
“We had children in wheelchairs coming and helping us with how that all works, because that’s not something that we all know off the top of our head. But an accessible train table is just one example of a way that we’ve been able to improve during this very dark time,” Lancaster said.
Xibitz created a three-tiered spin table so every child could reach the activity space. For items placed on the spin tables, the museum focused on “playful” but neutral colors to accommodate children with sensory disorders.
“Never… anytime before, have we ever been able to really redo all of our exhibits because there’s always kids out there. So accessibility was really, really important to us,” Lancaster said.
Allied Mechanical Services has replaced the popular bubble tower with a new branded version that has a lower incline ramp for easier wheelchair access, two additional bubble tables with adjustable heights, and a variety of new bubble making tools. Crews also installed new grippy flooring in the bubble area to reduce the risk of slipping on the soapy film.
NEW TOYS, GIFT SHOP GOODIES
Meijer stepped up the museum’s market area with a set of real checkout registers where children can scan foods and tally up prices.
The museum has added books from local multicultural bookstore We Are Lit, so visitors who fall in love with a We Are Lit book on the museum’s floors can buy their own copy in the gift shop. Wooden blocks made in Grand Rapids by Uncle Goose and items from Cognificent Kids have also made it onto the gift shop shelves.
REVAMPED VW BUG
The setting of many visitor photos, the museum’s classic VW Bug was refurbished by GR Auto Gallery, which revealed the finished project last week. Appearance Products Inc. came up with the design, which features the Grand Rapids skyline, and Grand Valley Tow helped move the bug back to its home.
Parents will no longer need to lift their children so they can see into the museum’s aquarium. The new tank sits lower to the ground, putting young visitors face-to-face with the fish. The aquarium is also more accessible to people in wheelchairs.
BEES ARE BACK
The new colony arrived on June 11 and has since settled into its enclosed indoor hive, passing through a tube that leads outside to gather nectar. Visitors are encouraged to search for the queen bee, who has a white spot painted on her back. The museum plans to launch a community contest on its Facebook page to name the queen.
MASK MANDATE, TEMPERATURE CHECKS
Because children under 12 are not eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, the Grand Rapids Children’s Museum is requiring all visitors over age 2 to wear a mask, as well as staff. Lancaster says the museum has also doubled the number of hand sanitizer stations and encouraging everyone to wash their hands to prevent the spread of germs. Visitors’ temperatures will also be checked at the entrance.
NEW TOY AND BUILDING CLEANING POLICY
Gone for now are puppets, costumes and stuffed animals as the museum works to combat the risk of COVID-19.
“We have had to change almost all of our manipulatives,” Lancaster explained. “Those are the things that are highly, highly touched.”
The remaining toys are separated in batches so workers can swap out a set every night. The used toys will be cleaned and sit in storage for three days to eliminate any coronavirus germs.
The museum also plans to sanitize all surfaces every one to two hours. The floors will be cleaned nightly by a professional company.
DIGITAL ADMISSIONS PROCESS
Because of capacity limits, guests are highly encouraged to make an online reservation before visiting the museum. Lancaster said walk-ins will be welcome as space allows.
The check-in procedure has also gone digital, with scanners and computers at the entrance. Membership cards have become digital passes on smartphone apps, and memberships have been extended for the duration of the museum’s closure.
While the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services has lifted capacity limits for all venues, the children’s museum plans to cap its capacity at 50%.
“I think that will make most people’s experience here even more enjoyable. If we heard one complaint in the past, it was it’s too busy, it’s too loud, it’s too chaotic. And yeah, that’s the children’s museum and that’s what you’re going into. But by having that capacity number of 300, I think we can make that a manageable and enjoyable experience for all families. And we’re going to hang in there with that number for a while,” Lancaster said.
Visitors will also see fewer workers circulating on the museum’s two floors. Before the pandemic, the Grand Rapids Children Museum employed about 40 people; Lancaster said that number dropped to six part-time workers “due to financials” during the shutdown.
“That’s hands down been the worst part of my job in this past year,” Lancaster said. ““We had staff who have been here for decades and to say goodbye to them so abruptly is traumatic. It’s traumatic for them, it’s traumatic for the people who are still here. And I hope that everyone realizes that this was no one’s fault and we’re going to do the best we can to continue on our mission. But we’re grateful for the time that they gave us through their lives as well.”
The museum’s workforce is up to about 16 employees — the slimmest staffing in Lancaster’s 18 years with the museum. Gone for now are the museum’s education director, exhibits director, office manager and chief financial officer. Lancaster is hoping some of the 300 volunteers the museum had before the pandemic will return and step up to help fill the gaps.
“The one thing that I want to ask our community is for patience as we go through this. I don’t know too many organizations that can completely shut down, revamp everything … from admissions, to walking into the door, to leaving and do it perfectly. We’re going to make mistakes and if they can be as patient with us as possible, I would be really, really appreciative of that,” Lancaster said.
She said federal Paycheck Protection Program loans, grants, donations and the support of existing members who didn’t ask for refunds during the shutdown were crucial to the survival of the museum, which doesn’t get county millage support like the Grand Rapids Public Museum and John Ball Zoo. She’s also thankful to the companies and contractors who donated time, money and supplies for the museum upgrades.
“I guess I really haven’t even processed how I feel. But if I had to use one word, hands down it would be grateful,” Lancaster said. “Even if I sat down for a week straight and 24 hours a day I wrote thank you notes, there’s no way I could get to everyone,” she said.
Lancaster is excited to experience the same joy the museum’s founders felt when they opened the building to children on July 31, 1997.
“They started at the library, it was the world’s shortest parade, and they came through our doors. That’s how I have it in my head — I can’t get that thought of their pure joy when they described that day, that’s how I feel this June date’s going to be,” she said.