GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The price tag has grown but the plans are still on for the Grand Rapids Public Museum’s first expansion since it moved into its Pearl Street home 28 years ago.

“We’re due. We really are due,” said Grand Rapids Public Museum President and CEO Dale Robertson.

(An undated image shows the Grand Rapids Public Museum at 272 Pearl St. NW in Grand Rapids.)

When Robertson took over as museum president and CEO in August 2008, the GRPM attracted about 68,000 visitors. In 2019 before the pandemic gripped the area, the museum’s visitor count swelled to nearly four times that amount. About 259,000 passed through the GRPM’s doors that year, including 30,000 students on tours.

“And the reason it’s 30,000 (students) is we had to cap it because we just plain ran out of space,” Robertson said. “That was really the catalyst for the whole expansion project … because we’re running out of space.”


Robertson says the museum’s vision for the future is built from its past, when the GRPM opened at 54 Jefferson St. in 1940.

“It was first in the nation for any major institution to have a street-level entry. And the (museum) executive director, president at the time Frank DuMond, his quote was ‘To be as accessible as your neighborhood dime store and friendly as your next door neighbor,’” Robertson said. “So honestly, we’re really just implementing the Frank DuMond public museum playbook in the 21st Century. “

Robertson says that means harnessing technology and designing a space that’s physically and cognitively accessible to all, including the museum’s ground floor electricity exhibit.

“The buzzing sounds when you first enter the space will go away because that noise isn’t good for people with sensory sensitivities,” Robertson said.

The current drop-off area on the building’s west side will be transformed into a new entry and class assembly area that can be used for events at night. In phase two of the project, a new south side tower will add a ground-floor café, more room for exhibitions and events, and space for a hands-on learning lab for students, building on the museum’s success as an immersive educational institution.

“We broke some museum rules in that we allow people to actually handle artifacts and specimens with the idea that these visceral kinds of experiences, when you can be in the presence of the real thing or hold the real thing, creates the stronger hooks for future information to land on,” Robertson explained.


Outside the museum, the space module turned time capsule will stay. The sidewalk-hugging hedges that have hindered visitors from enjoying the greenspace will go.

(A new conceptual rendering provided by the Grand Rapids Public Museum, Virdis Design and Tower Pinkster shows what the updated museum may look like.)

“We’re publicly owned, this is public space. And so do we want people just spending time here? Absolutely right, we do,” Robertson said.

Here’s what visitors can expect right outside the museum in the coming years:

  • A pollinator garden to support local wildlife.
  • A playscape for children to enjoy.
  • A wave feature so visitors can hear the Grand River once the rapids are restored.
  • Terracing to make the Grand River accessible to visitors no matter the water level.
  • Ramps leading to the Grand River that exceed accessibility requirements as outlined by the Americans with Disabilities Act.
  • A retaining wall along the river that will tell the story about the geological layers of the Grand River. The wall will include QR codes people can scan to visit the museum’s digitized collection of artifacts and information to dig deeper into the science.
  • An outdoor dining area under a green roof where local food vendors can tell the story of their food and share any possible science lessons tied to their food.
(A new conceptual rendering provided by the Grand Rapids Public Museum, Virdis Design and Tower Pinkster shows what the updated riverfront outside the museum may look like.)

Robertson says the museum is collaborating with the Grand Rapids Community College’s Secchia Institute for Culinary Education in designing the outdoor food area, identifying potential career development opportunities for culinary students and potentially showcasing new culinary technology at the museum.

“You never know where you’re going to inspire somebody’s career for a young person, or just simply somebody my age, just absolutely amazed at what’s going on,” Robertson said. “We definitely want to get the providence right — Here’s the facts. I think for us, the successful visit then is, what’s the next best question for you to ask? So for that young person, can I explore their career? Say, somebody like me, I never would imagine I’d watch a robot make me a salad.”

A photo from the late 1870s shows the former Voight Milling Company facility on Pearl Street NW in Grand Rapids.

Robertson says the outdoor space will be a nod to the property’s legacy and surroundings. Before the museum, 272 Pearl St. NW was home to Kellogg’s competitor Voigt Milling Company, which inspired the museum’s food feature. The GRPM also plans to create a circular motif as a connection to the nearby Ah-Nab-Awen park.


Last year the two-phase expansion project was expected to cost about $64 million. But like many things, the price has risen. Robertson says the entire project will cost about $70 million now, including the endowment, rainy day fund, programming and preventative maintenance needed to keep operations running smoothly.

(A courtesy rendering shows the planned expansion at the Grand Rapids Public Museum.)

Robertson says the project’s timeline hinges on fundraising and a permit. The museum has raised or identified at least $15 million, including a $800,000 placemaking subgrant facilitated by The Right Place and paid for by federal COVID-19 relief funds. That’s enough to start work on the riverfront renovations when the GRPM’s permit is approved and a contractor is lined up. But if the permit doesn’t come until November or December, the GRPM will likely wait until spring to start construction.

If all goes well, Robertson says the first phase of the project — including the riverfront redesign, indoor exhibit renovations, a new west side entrance, and the north lawn park area — would be complete by 2025. Robertson says the park would be the last piece of that phase because the park will be used as a staging area for the other segments of phase 1 project.

Robertson says the phase 2 tower on the building’s south end “will be a couple years down the road.”