The new museum, seen from above.

The new Madison Children's Museum readies for its August premiere

Where kids are king

A Walworth County log cabin built by German immigrants circa the 1830s. A kid-sized hamster wheel projecting out over the lobby from the second level. An old gymnasium floor recovered from a Milwaukee school and reinstalled in a manner that rearranges free-throw lines and other court paint to resemble confetti. Great Lakes buoys. A green roof with trees, gardens, chickens, homing pigeons, a greenhouse, wind turbines, solar panels, rain barrels, a unique perspective on the Capitol and a vista overlooking the north central isthmus and Lake Mendota.

To tour the new home for the Madison Children's Museum as an adult is to crave do-overs on childhood. When it opens in mid-August at 100 N. Hamilton St., parents will at least be able to revisit their youth vicariously, through their children.

With hammers and power saws echoing as contractors race to complete the building's renovation, executive director Ruth Shelly wears an expression of anticipation. Cornering on the Capitol Square near the YWCA and Bartell Theatre, served by more than 20 Madison Metro bus routes, with easy access for pedestrians and cyclists and ample room for expansion, the museum's new location "couldn't be better for us," she says.

The museum owns the entire triangular block bounded by North Hamilton, North Pinckney and East Dayton streets, including a 55-space surface parking lot anchored by the log cabin, which stands as both a landmark for the museum and a one-room site for its history programming. The museum's remodeling of the old Montgomery Ward department store will more than triple the capacity of its previous location on State Street - allowing the museum to bring its entire staff back under one roof for the first time in about 15 years, consolidating its exhibit workshops on-site and accommodating more patrons than ever.

The front entry, facing the Capitol, has been reopened, admitting more light into the lobby. The wow factor takes a steep climb when you look up and see the colossal circular hamster treadmill kids will be able to run on. "We're eager," says Shelly, "to emphasize active play and exercise."

Artistic touches are everywhere. Exhibits director Brenda Baker commissioned 26 artists to render the alphabet's 26 letters. Husband-and-wife children's-book creators Laura Dronzek and Kevin Henkes are contributing a mural. Recovered from a downtown condo, a skylight-shaped mural by Richard Haas depicts the Capitol, Devil's Lake, Taliesin, Wisconsin Dells and other iconic Wisconsin sites to convey a sense of place. Each restroom has a different theme; one is decorated with tiles representing fruits and vegetables.

The early-learning gallery for ages 5 and younger has been conceived as "a global village," Shelly explains, and executed with nontoxic materials sourced within a 100-mile radius of Madison. "You could lick any surface in this area and be perfectly safe," she notes. "Even the paint is all milk-based."

This is in keeping with the museum's green initiatives. They date to 1999, when - out of respect for both environmental and children's health - it switched to using all-natural materials for its exhibits. Sustainability is a cornerstone of the new site, which incorporates LED and other energy-efficient lighting, cell-phone tours of its green features, and restroom fixtures including waterless urinals and recycled partitions.

"The sense of recycled, reclaimed and repurposed materials in here will send a really important message to kids that not everything has to be new," Shelly says, "and that there are stories in objects from the past."

The museum's new home also includes such practical features as quiet places for mothers to nurse their infants, locations where overstimulated kids can go to calm down, an organic cafe, orientation and lunch rooms, and a kitchen where staff and volunteers can share ideas over lunch instead of eating at their desks.

But the cool stuff is relentless: an old pinball machine modified with internal fiber-optic cables that allow players to watch the machine's inner workings; a dentist's chair with a beauty-parlor hood that will trigger different sounds based on its wearer's facial movements; an impressive video-monitor display controlled with joysticks made from things like hockey sticks and shovel handles. The popular Shadow Room is being imported from the museum's State Street location. A collaboration with UW-Madison graduate woodworking students is resulting in a distinctive series of benches integrating art and function.

The building's high-capacity elevator is suitable for bearing large objects but also 30 schoolkids at a time from floor to floor. At the top, it opens onto the museum's green roof. Shelly likens it to a park in the sky. "For us, to get kids up high and give them a view of their community was really important," she says.

The vistas present opportunities to talk about architecture, history and weather. The greenhouse turns the roof into a year-round gardening and urban ecology resource. There will also be a weather station, rainwater harvesting, two giant bird sculptures crafted from recycled materials by large-scale art-welder Dr. Evermor, trees, vegetable and herb gardens, a chicken coop and homing pigeons.

Kia Karlen signed for receipt of four homing pigeons the other day. The Madison Children's Museum education director says the new building has recalibrated the museum's scale of ambitions.

"Getting up on the roof of the building, when we first acquired the property, before there was anything pretty or green up there, was really inspiring to all of us," Karlen says. "A lot of what we're doing has just come from this sort of, 'Hey, I woke up and had this idea: What if we did X?'"

She cites the Philosophone as one result of this dynamic. Recognizing the potential of a 40-year-old phone booth led to a collaboration with cartoonist and radio veteran P.S. Mueller. "Pete has written and recorded a whole bunch of odd, philosophical, paradoxical questions for kids," Karlen explains. "You'll get into this sort of psychedelic phone booth and pick up the old telephone receiver and be posed with these questions." Gomers stalwart Biff Blumfumgagnge, Karlen (an accomplished accordionist and horn player) and her husband, percussionist Geoff Brady, recorded music for the booth.

Karlen says exhibits like this lend the museum an off-kilter, funky atmosphere, less Discovery World than the result of a whole bunch of creative people collaborating to create "a very Madison sort of place."

Whee galore

Madison Children's Museum
100 N. Hamilton St.; 608-256-6445

Museum hours: Hours will be 9:30 am-5 pm daily, with extended hours until 8 pm Thursdays.

Admission: $7 adults and children, $6 seniors and grandparents; $1 for anyone on public assistance; free for children under one year old and for museum members. Free admission for everyone during Twilight Thursdays, 5-8 pm the first Thursday of every month. The entry-level Community Concourse is open to all at no charge.

Grand Opening Celebration
9:30 am-5 pm Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 14-15
9 am parade Saturday followed by ceremonial ribbon-cutting, workshops and demonstrations, music and dance performances; and, on Sunday, a showcase of resident-company envoys from Overture Center for the Arts, plus tours (including one focused on the new museum's impressive collection of works by 100 artists).

comments powered by Disqus

More to read

Loading More Articles
No More Articles

Mama Madison: Coping with toddlers in a Wisconsin winter

I'm having trouble enjoying the season, because I can't keep myself from thinking about the miserable weather that's sure to be following close on the heels of the crisp, pleasant fall we've been having. I am not at all emotionally prepared to be the parent of two toddlers during a Wisconsin winter.

Mama Madison: Melissa Wardy pushes positive messages

I've always been a supporter of companies that empower women and girls, and when the creator of such a company is a fellow Wisconsinite, I get even more excited. When Melissa Wardy of Janesville got fed up with stereotypes found in clothing for girls, she started her own company.

Mama Madison: Three cheers for reading at the Wisconsin Book Festival

Do you have a little reader or an aspiring teenaged writer in your house? If so, you may want to venture to the Wisconsin Book Festival this weekend, to whet their appetite for wonderful words as well as your own.

Mama Madison: What's in a name?

When I was pregnant with my daughter, my husband and I had two names picked out. Upon her arrival we had not yet come to a conclusion on what that name would be. Everyone told us that when we saw her we would just know. We didn't.

Mama Madison: Eugster's is more than just a visit to the farm

At age 10 months, my kids have seen the zoo a lot already. I was a zoology major in college, and I have something of a zoo addiction still, so the twins (and their dad) are more or less condemned to a future rife with zoo visits.

Help for home-schoolers at the Madison Mentor Center

Home-schooling can be a lonely proposition. Even as a college professor, Juliana Hunt remembers struggling to find support to home-school her now-grown daughter. "I was always hoping to find like-minded people who were in the same position as me," she says. "I know that children learn best through a give-and-take, question-and-answer process of teaching and learning, but where do you find mentors who can make that happen?"

Mama Madison: Yummy Sprout is a wonderful resource

After sleep patterns, I think the next biggest parenting concern I have and hear about revolves around the topic of food. How can I make sure my kids are eating enough vegetables? Did I pack them a lunch that is healthy enough? What can I feed them after school that doesn't come from a box? How many gripes am I going to get about the dinner I'm about to prepare?

Mama Madison: Tips and tricks for baby air travel

As far as places to embark on Baby's First Air Travel go, Dane County Regional Airport is a pretty sound choice, especially at 6 p.m. on a Saturday night. My biggest fear was that my nine-month-old son would start screaming in the airport; my second biggest fear was that my son would start screaming and some of my former Epic colleagues would be around to hear it.

Mama Madison: Apple-picking time

The recent shift in the weather is just another sign that autumn is fast approaching. That means one of my favorite activities is just around the corner -- apple picking. My husband and I have been picking apples every fall since before our kids were born.

Mama Madison: Baby feeding recommendations

I have a lot of questions about what to put on my eight-month-olds' plates -- and, if I'm honest, a deep and abiding fear of putting the wrong thing there. Did I start them on solid foods at the right time? What's the deal with baby-led weaning -- how much self-feeding should they be doing? At what age should I give them potential allergens like shellfish or nut products?

Heartland Farm Sanctuary helps animals that help kids

Lily the potbellied pig arrived at Heartland Farm Sanctuary blind, lethargic and too overweight to walk. The children of Heartland's summer day camp program took it upon themselves to put the curl back in her tail.

Mama Madison: Back-to-school confidences

Is it just me or does each summer seem to go by quicker than the last? The end of summer is upon us and for many families this means the start of a new school year.

Mama Madison: Does back-to-school really mean a whole new wardrobe?

This past week, on the way to the grocery store, my daughter asked what I believed she thought would be a innocuous question, "Mom, when are we going back-to-school shopping?"

Mama Madison: Next generation of bloggers

Volunteering with the Young Writers Summer Camp this past week really helped me to remember how utterly creative kids can be when encouraged to come up with their own ideas and use their own words.

Mama Madison: Returning to the workforce

This past week I gleefully accepted an offer for new job on the UW-Madison campus. My kids are getting are older and I guess I've felt for a while now that it was time to figure out what would be next for me on the professional front.

Triathlons raise money to teach kids healthy habits

"Kids spend so much time in and around school, it's the only place where some have a chance to develop an appreciation for a healthy lifestyle," says Katie Hensel, founder and executive director of Tri 4 Schools.

Mama Madison: Kids will find their own passions in their own ways

"I'm envious, mom," said my twelve-year-old daughter as she hopped in the car after theater camp last week. "All the other kids in my group seem to really like, and to be really good at, singing, dancing and acting. But I think all those things are just okay."

Vital work is being done at the Lussier Community Education Center, from community-building to STEM skills

"People are looking to book space here all the time," says Remy Fernández-O'Brien, communications and facilities coordinator for the Lussier Community Education Center, a private, nonprofit community center on Madison's west side. "They want to throw their child's first birthday party here or hold a Girl Scout meeting. We're really busy year-round, but it's especially lively here in the summer."

Mama Madison: Parental dice rolls?

Last week, in response to the county-wide Sleep Safe, Sleep Well public health campaign that encourages parents to "share the room, not the bed" with their sleeping infants, Isthmus contributor Ruth Conniff penned a lovely opinion piece in defense of bed sharing entitled "Confessions of a Co-Sleeper."

Mama Madison: What constitutes a keepsake?

As much as I'd like to believe there is latent genius in my daughter's early finger paintings, I'm pretty sure her works are not distinguishable from those created by the pointer fingers and pinkies of thousands of other children from across the world.