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).

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