As children's museums reopen, will most families come back?

After a seven-week hiatus, the state's largest children's museum in St. Paul reopens Thursday

Children enjoy their time at the Minnesota Children's Museum.
The pandemic has forced many of children's museums to temporarily close, including the Minnesota Children's Museum in St. Paul. After a seven-week hiatus, however, the museum reopens Thursday.
Photo by Bruce Silcox | Courtesy of Minnesota Children's Museum file

If you'd walk into any children's museum in the country before the pandemic, you'd probably find throngs of kids touching and feeling their way through hands-on exhibits. And that was all by design — learning through play.

But COVID-19 upended how kids’ museums operate. It's forced many of them to temporarily close, including the state's largest children's museum in St. Paul. After a seven-week hiatus, however, the Minnesota Children’s Museum reopens Thursday.

Chances are, the museum won't be crowded and filled with children like it was pre-pandemic. There won't be some of the same attractions that were there before: costumes, props, helmets and a paint-your-own face station.

Museum officials also have closed the Scramble — a four-story climbing exhibit featuring a netted catwalk, said Bob Ingrassia, vice president of the museum’s external relations.

He said when it closed the first time, and reopened in August, these same safety measures were implemented. People were required to wear masks, buy tickets in advance and limit their time there. But it hasn't been enough to sustain the same level of staffing and revenue. The organization is now 45 percent smaller than it was before the pandemic, Ingrassia said.

"If somehow this got extended even further, then there is a real threat,” he said.

The Children's Museum is in a good position to continue operating through 2021, said Ingrassia, adding that he understands some families may still feel uncomfortable visiting.

Children enjoy their time at the Minnesota Children's Museum.
The Minnesota Children's Museum in St. Paul, closed for seven weeks due to the pandemic, is reopening Thursday.
Photo by Bruce Silcox | Courtesy of Minnesota Children's Museum file

But children's museums across the country aren't strangers to disinfecting surfaces, said Laura Huerta Migues, executive director of the national Association of Children's Museums.

"Every year, children's museums have already had to have health and safety and sanitation procedures because we have flu outbreaks every year, and a couple of years ago when there were measles outbreaks,” she said. “Managing that risk is already part of the core operating expertise of children's museums."

For those who can't or don't feel comfortable visiting, the Minnesota Children's Museum will soon resume offering free discovery kits for families to pick up and work on at home.

"For the families that feel comfortable coming, we want to be there,” Ingrassia said. “And for those that don't, we want to and have been doing virtual programming and off-site things. We still want to support parents and families in Minnesota as best as we can."

The Children's Museum has extended its memberships to make up for the months it was closed.

Museum visits are limited to two hours.

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