By: David Mohs GRCM Facilities Committee co-chair Exhibits Committee member
On a daily basis for over two years, I have and continue to provide behind-the-scenes volunteer support to the emerging Great River Children’s Museum. My information technology background within a secondary education environment was a natural fit for the museum’s interim networking, computing, audio-visual, and security needs.
Though the pandemic has hampered in-person activities, persistent planning for the museum’s launch continues. Given that Abraham Lincoln said, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe,” imagine how many hours of preparation are required to convert a 25,000-square-foot, 100-room banking facility into a bustling children’s museum. Upon opening its doors, Great River Children’s Museum will open worlds of exploration, discovery and creativity in Downtown Saint Cloud.
In the meantime, while we at Great River Children’s Museum figuratively sharpen our axe, Minnesota Children’s Museum in Saint Paul has collaborated with us to bring a second small traveling exhibit to the future home of Great River Children’s Museum.
On a recent winter morning, Curious George™ swung out of a freight truck and into the museum’s preview space. Tugged behind him was a bit of countryside. He proceeded to set up an apartment within and is actively constructing a small city. Perhaps, if we have enough bananas, Curious George and his crew will restore our building to its original 16-foot ceiling height! Stay tuned to our Facebook page for pictures.
Like our first traveling exhibit, Storyland, this exhibit will be available for a limited time to limited audiences given pandemic conditions. We were able to welcome 40 small groups through Storyland. Our hope is to invite more than 100 small groups for Curious George.
Our museum team will be scheduling reservations with educational partners and childcare providers first because of their already established “pandemic bubbles.” Then, we will invite individual families to reserve time with the exhibit.
Between guests, the space will be disinfected. Our volunteers will be working hard.
By: Dr. Vincent Miles GRCM Board Member and Exhibits Committee chair
2020 was a busy year for the Great River Children’s Museum Exhibits Committee, and 2021 is kicking off with an even higher level of energy as we start to see our vision come to life.
What is an Exhibits Committee?
GRCM’s Exhibits Committee is tasked with taking initial exhibit ideas and concepts of the Board, further conceptualizing them, and readying the concepts to present to exhibit design professionals. Essentially, we’re carrying the baton from the museum master plan vision forward to the best-suited exhibit designers to execute that vision.
The Committee includes Board members and community members with various backgrounds, including early childhood education, mental health, business, higher-education, arts programming, and law (to name a few). Additional community voices include those specifically who have children currently within the target demographic age of the museum.
What has the Exhibits Committee accomplished so far?
After a lengthy process, we closed out 2020 selecting a collaborative joint-bid of three exhibit design-build companies — Split Rock Studios (St. Paul, MN), Haizlip Studio (Memphis, TN), and KidZibits (St. Paul, MN).
Here’s how we got there.
In January 2020, we focused on developing the 5 major permanent exhibits identified in the museum master plan. These exhibits include: 1) Great Big River, 2) Climber To The Clouds, 3) Big Woods Workshop, 4) Bridges To The World, and 5) Great Explorations.
Small workgroups of 4 or 5 members each were formed around each of these exhibits with the goal to discuss, further the concepts, and prepare reports in a consistent format presentable to future consultants and contractors.
Simultaneously, our committee identified 5 children’s museums and other similar organizations to visit and gain insight on exhibit experiences; however, the COVID-19 pandemic interfered with our plans as stay-at-home orders and social distancing became a priority. As a result, we were only able to visit 2 locations: the Mille Lacs Indian Museum and the Children’s Museum of Eau Claire. These targeted visits answered many questions we had about the exhibit development process.
As we settled into the new normal that the pandemic brought, we shifted interactions online and continued to hold committee and small group meetings regularly.
When our new executive director was hired in July 2020, our committee brought her up to speed on exhibit visions and insights captured.
The next step was to create a Request for Qualifications (RFQ) that could be posted online and sent out to known firms that specialize in museum exhibit development. This comprehensive RFQ document was sent to 19 firms (many of which connected to our professional organization, the Association of Children’s Museums), posted on an online database, and posted publicly on our website. The RFQ closed October 23, 2020 and ultimately yielded 12 proposals submitted by many high-quality, capable, and nationally recognized exhibit design firms, including three from Minnesota.
We developed a rubric to evaluate and score the prospective design firms. Then, members of our Exhibits Committee, Board, and Facilities Committee embarked on the monumental task of reading through all of the proposals (some 50 pages each) and scoring them. Scores were compiled and analyzed to determine the best fit for the needs of our museum.
After follow-up interviews and reference checks, we formally made our recommendation to the Board to move forward hiring the collaborative team. Contracts were drafted, reviewed by attorneys, approved by the Board in January 2021, and the contract was signed.
What are the next steps to bring exhibits to life?
Now the fun really starts to take-off. We will use the first half of 2021 to catapult our vision into a workable plan.
The design firms are set to hold a kick-off event with us in February. This will lead to initial sketches of what our exhibit designs will be. We then move into the schematic phase as they nail down how these exhibits will fit our space and our needs.
Concurrently with this process, our Exhibits Committee will shift some of our focus to additional exhibit planning needs of our museum. Most notably, we will further concept our outdoor play space, explore further STEM and technology offerings of our museum, and begin discussion on smaller minor exhibits to round out our entire exhibit experience for museum visitors.
With the continued support of our community, additional exhibit sponsorships, and ongoing volunteer engagement, we anticipate sharing these one-of-a-kind exhibit details within the year.
These images showcase other collaborative museum design builds from the firms selected to bring Great River Children’s Museum exhibits to life.
Work continues to bring an exciting new children’s museum to downtown St. Cloud, MN and today the Great River Children’s Museum announced that another milestone had been reached with the hiring of Cassandra (Cassie) Miles as Executive Director. The Executive Director salary is funded in part with money from the Minnesota Humanities Center and the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund that was created with the vote of the people of Minnesota on November 4, 2008.
It’s been four weeks since Cassie stepped into the Executive Director role and her new, temporary office at 111 7th Avenue South. The building, which was donated by Liberty Bank in September of 2018, is quiet now as COVID-19 has halted some of the community engagement work that launched earlier in the year. Regardless, Cassie is energized and ready to lead the project forward. “I am really excited to have a part in creating an imaginative space where families from around Central Minnesota can come to connect, play, explore and discover. There’s really nothing cooler than making a shared dream come to life and I get to work alongside a community that I love and a fantastic Board of Directors and volunteers to do just that! ”
While the community has quieted some over the last few months, Great River Children’s Museum continues to make progress on their plans to build a children’s museum that will serve the central Minnesota region. Before the initial stay-at-home order was issued, the museum’s board and volunteers had completed initial pre-design work with architects, launched Play Explore Learn Labs, began holding Roundtable discussions with various community groups, and had begun a quiet phase of fundraising. Now, although COVID-19 has caused a disruption, the Board of Directors continues to find ways to pivot where needed and tackle some of the many behind the scenes projects on their plate. For example, while the in-person Play Explore Learn Labs had to be put on hold, the Family Fun Club was born in its place to create activities that would allow families to engage with the museum outside and from their homes. Larger projects like creating detailed exhibit descriptions, meeting with design consultants, capping unused wells, taking soil samples and general preparations for a large remodel project all continued. As other organizations were working to find ways to reopen, the Great River Children’s Museum Board realized that delaying the hiring of an Executive Director would mean pushing a pause button on something that the community is looking forward to and that just didn’t feel like the right decision for the families that the museum will welcome through the doors in the future.
“We are excited to announce the arrival of our new Executive Director Cassie Miles,” said Board Chair Glen Palm.
“A full time Director will help us strategically focus our efforts so we can achieve the maximum benefit from all the work our volunteers are doing and move closer to our goal of opening the Great River Children’s Museum to serve Central Minnesota.”
Cassie herself was born and raised in Central Minnesota, just outside of Annandale. She went to the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities campus where she earned her BSB in Finance and BSB in Entrepreneurial Management. She brings her background in the financial sector and her love for locally owned establishments to her new role. She also brings her experience as a mother to an almost 2 year old son who inspires her and reminds her daily that children need safe imaginative spaces to thrive.
Walking into the space that is the future home of the Great River Children’s Museum has the feeling of something coming full circle for Cassie. “I grew up spending a lot of time at my uncle’s hobby farm and my career started at a bank in Chicago after college. I just think it’s fitting that I get to walk into a building that used to house a hatchery and a bank and make plans for the structure to evolve into something entirely different and wonderful.” Hiring an Executive Director was just one big step in a series of big steps. The Great River Children’s Museum will continue the quiet phase of raising capital and talking to the community about their hopes and visions for the future museum. Everyone involved with the project knows that taking it day-by-day is necessary when there are a lot of unanswerable questions, but that doesn’t stop them from preparing for the future. “There is a lot going on in the world that we need to pay attention to and learn from each and every day,” Cassie commented. “It can be overwhelming, but it isn’t hard to push ahead with the children’s museum work. Economically, it is going to provide a boost to aid regional recovery from downturns caused by the pandemic. Socially and emotionally, it gives me and everyone else something to look forward to and a place where joy can be experienced and expressed. All we have to do is think about the many smiling faces that will walk through the door of the children’s museum that the community will build together. It’s going to be incredible.”
Over the last six weeks, the world has changed in ways that none of us could have imagined. Great River Children’s Museum has continued to make progress even while some activities have been put on pause and many community events have been cancelled. Committees have continued to meet over Zoom during this time and plan around the COVID-19 crisis as best we can. We know our supporters and our community are interested in our progress.
Over the past several months, Play, Explore and Learn (PEL) Labs have been conducted by museum volunteers for the purpose of learning how families engage in a variety of museum activities. These events have been conducted with small groups by invitation. Unfortunately, the PEL Labs planned for April and May have been postponed, but the committee continues to plan and prepare for the time when they can resume. All the while, discussing ways to keep connected to children and families in the community through alternative activies during this challenging time.
Another group of volunteers have been working with a consultant to conduct roundtable discussions with targeted groups around museum development. They have met with two groups of community members, downtown council members and non-profit group representatives, and early childhood teachers. These discussions have added valuable insights at this key phase of development. Additional roundtable sessions will be conducted with other groups of stakeholders when we are able to safely meet in small groups.
Our Exhibits Committee was visiting regional museums to inform their work as they continue to develop the exhibit concepts that were designed by the museum consultants. They visited the Children’s Museum of Eau Claire and the Mille Lacs Indian Museum. Unfortunately, they had to postpone upcoming visits to museums that are now closed due to the COVID-19.
The Personnel Committee continues to forge ahead in the search for an executive director. The position posting garnered a lot of interest and interviews were planned before the Covid crisis. The committee has created a list of top candidates. Then, they conducted phone and Zoom interviews. They are on track to bring a recommendation to the board in May with a goal of bringing on an executive director in June.
This is just a sampling of the good work being done by the board, committees and volunteers working with the Great River Children’s Museum. We look forward to the day when we can again bring community members into the building to engage in this exciting work with us. The excitement of children, families and neighbors is what fuels this work.
Our PEL Lab space is looking great because of eleven volunteers from the United Way Day of Caring. On Thursday, September 19, they spent the day painting the 1200 square foot room where we plan to host our PEL Labs and the restroom in that space. The volunteers also dismantled some shelving in an older vault. Volunteers came from several employers, including GeoComm, Minnwest Bank, PCI, Safelite Auto Glass and Toppan Merrill. Thanks for all the hard work!
“Welcoming,” “flourishing,” “connected,” “community” – these are a few of the inspiring words you will find in the newly completed 63-page museum plan that has come out of a series of sessions with museum planners, Jeanne Vergeront and Jim Rowe, early childhood experts and children’s museum leaders. Over the course of several months, the planning group has crafted a clear and comprehensive plan for a museum in downtown Saint Cloud. They envision positive changes for children and families in Central Minnesota and beyond as a result of the Great River Children’s Museum’s presence in the community.
The Museum will bring expanding opportunities to the Greater St. Cloud Area. This will be possible because the community will place a value on play as essential to children’s learning and wellbeing. Families of all backgrounds will be connected around a shared interest in their children. Children will be prepared for a more culturally diverse community and a changing world. The entire community will recognize that it thrives when its children thrive!
Over the past several months, the planning group has been having many conversations with museum planners Jeanne Vergeront and Jim Roe and JLG architects to develop creative concepts for how to make the best use of the building. The museum planners have captured and clearly expressed the philosophy of the museum, the goals for various exhibit areas, and targets for future programming. The architects have dug into all the nooks and crannies of the building and created some early drawings based on the museum’s expressed goals. The museum planning group will now put these two products together to come up with one unified presentation to be shared with the community. We are excited to get your feedback and input as we dig deeper into the details of building design, exhibit concepts, and museum programming. The images will also be a big help as we kick off our capital campaign, raising the funds needed to bring these dreams to life.
Community members continue to step up and generously contribute to bringing the museum to life.
Coborn’s Inc. has donated a refrigerator for the museum building. This has been very helpful for the frequent meetings happening at the museum. Cool refreshments are much appreciated by our volunteers.
Creating an opening between two main floor rooms, to make it possible to offer programming for children and families, required some simple remodeling to meet city codes. It proved challenging to find a commercial contractor who could do the work during the busy construction season. Then generous bids came back from community members who were able to complete the construction project. Soon United Way volunteers will help with painting to put the final touches on these rooms.
Many little adjustments needed to be made to bring the building into compliance with fire codes and ADA. One of our volunteers pulled up and leveled the paving stones at the back of the building to bring the rear entrance into ADA compliance as pictured below.
We continue to be grateful for the involvement of community members who are willing to give of their time and energy to bring a children’s museum to the St. Cloud Area. We look forward to using the newly remodeled spaces to learn about putting together quality programming with children and families as well as gathering groups from the community to collect input.
Work continues with the Vergeront Museum Planners. The Great River Children’s Museum Planning Team is meeting with them to create a museum plan including programming, exhibits and community outreach. The museum planning professionals are accelerating their pace to get our doors open as soon as possible.
They have been helping with programming ideas for our first phase, which is community engagement. It is common for emerging museums to go through what is sometimes called a traveling museum phase involving going out into the community with programming. We also hope to open a preview space at our location in downtown for play, learning and exploration while building upgrades and exhibit construction takes place in other parts of the building.
Our space is laid out in a way that lends itself well to phased opening. It is essentially made up of three distinct buildings. In the southernmost building, we plan to create an opening in the wall that divides the two storefronts. With modifications to meet fire code, we will be able to host up to 90 people in this section of our building. In this space, we will host round table discussions to gather community input and invite families to play and explore as we try out programming ideas and gather community input for the next phases of museum development.
The theme of the Association of Children’s Museums conference in Denver, Colorado was Interactivity. Thousands of people came together from children’s museums around the world to share what they had learned in their work of promoting the power of play in the lives of children. Wednesday, May 8th was set aside for emerging museums like ours to focus on the major tasks involved in getting a museum up and running. Thursday, Friday and Saturday consisted of workshops, networking and vendors for emerging and established museums alike. Regardless of their stage of development, everyone was there to support each other’s success. We met many creative and generous people who were all pooling their talents to lift up the cause of playful learning.
The keynote speaker, Temple Grandin, spoke of her experiences growing up with an autistic brain and how her unique way of thinking has helped her develop innovative solutions for problems in the cattle industry. She encouraged the work of children’s museums to provide places for children to play and explore the world in ways that will help them build brains that will solve real world problems now and in the future. She is an advocate for neurodiversity and is a shining example of why our world needs all kinds of minds.
Members of our group were able to connect with children’s museum professionals from Minnesota, many of whom are leaders in their field and have already been major supporters for this project. We were able to visit with some premier exhibit developers at the vendor fair from right here in our great state who are ready to get on board designing world class exhibits for our museum in Central Minnesota.