One of the few remnants of the Minnesota Children's Museum's early days in downtown Minneapolis is still one of the most popular attractions at its downtown St. Paul location: the crane.
It's a make-believe construction site where kids manipulate levers to make a crane pick up cardboard beams and drop them in the bed of a truck. Kate Donaldson, one of the museum's co-founders, says they had to beg and borrow their way to filling the 5,000 square feet in their original space.
"We had the crane," she says. "We had a motorcycle that somebody donated so the kids could hop on the motorcycle. I think we had an old school bus. So we just sort of went on a scavenger hunt around town."
Donaldson says that back in 1981, people in the Twin Cities had no conception of what a children's museum was, so she and her collaborators had to visit the two major museums in Boston and New York and do a lot of homework.
"We had seen other museums try to start really big and had crashed," she says. "So we came in with the philosophy of starting small and growing as there was demand."
After four years, the museum moved to a larger space in St. Paul's Bandana Square. Eleven years ago, with the help of state and local funding, the current Minnesota Children's Museum arose on the corner of 7th and Wabasha in downtown St. Paul.
With 65,000 square feet and seven galleries, it features permanent and traveling exhibits designed to encourage creativity and problem solving. The museum focusses on a range of children, from infants to ten-year-olds.
It's a cultural linchpin downtown and brings in more than 400,000 visitors a year. Museum President Sarah Caruso says its economic impact downtown has never been officially tabulated, but she believes it's significant.
"When you go out about town, especially at lunchtime, you see people with museum stickers all over the place, at Candyland, at Macy's, at Fuji-ya," she says. "We know they stay for three hours and they must leave hungry and go spend money somewhere."
St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman thinks one of the museum's greatest contributions is the way it has strengthened the city's "family-friendly" reputation around the region.
"We have friends from out of town or from other parts of the state of Minnesota. They come down here and they know that there's something their families can do, and I don't think that's true of other cities," Coleman says.
The museum recently completed a $10 million capital campaign and there are no major projects or expansions in the works. There is an initiative underway to make the museum more accessible to a wider range of income groups. Other than that, President Sarah Caruso says the museum will continue to deepen its commitment to its ongoing mission, which is helping children grow and learn through play.