GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — “Even though our doors have been closed to the public, we have been busier than never before.”
So begins a conversation with Grand Rapids Children’s Museum CEO Maggie Lancaster. She’s talking about how busy the museum has been during the 15-month closure imposed by the pandemic.
While Lancaster is excited and feeling positive, she remembers a darker time. “It probably has been one of the most emotional times ever,” she recalls. “You have the emotion of letting most of your staff go, closing the museum to the public, and having that awful illness go around our communities, so many of us knew people who didn't survive this.”
But she quickly turns to how remaining staff, members, volunteers, and sponsors stepped up. “Stay-at-home kits” were delivered to families who needed ways to engage their kids. Families kept their memberships active, helping the museum remain solvent. And sponsors like EV Construction, Allied Mechanical, and Meijer contributed to upgrading the museum while it was idle.
“Never has there ever been a time before where we could really assess what do we want to do when we reopen?” says Lancaster. “Who do we want to be when we reopen? The number one word that came to mind was ‘accessibility.’”
To that end, some existing features were reworked to be more accessible. The fish tank, which was originally built with steps up to the tank, was lowered to floor level. The train table, a perennial favorite activity center, was redesigned to allow anyone in a wheelchair to roll right up to it and play without banging into the side.
A big new feature harkens back to the movie of the same name, “Big.”
“For the first time ever our museum has the ‘Big’ piano,” Lancaster says with pride. If you haven’t seen the movie, the keyboard is on the floor, and you play it with your feet. “And so, I really, really want to see of who can learn the chopsticks like Tom Hanks did in that movie.”
Lancaster is excited about another musical feature, Kristen’s Corner, a tribute to Kristen Paradiso Ricci, “a musician, a teacher, and one who taught special needs kids music.”
While the train table has been redone, so has the bubble tower, a favorite feature since the GRCM opened. And the selection of items in the gift shop has received a significant upgrade of the book selection and other items.
Reopening the GRCM will be a gradual process. Currently, it will only be open Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. But changes are expected and should be watched for on the museum’s website.
To keep children safe, since they cannot yet receive vaccinations, attendance will be limited, which has already resulted in positive feedback. Families who came through the newly reopened doors expressed an appreciation that the atmosphere is not “crazy, wild, and a free for all.”