After a longer-than-expected closure period and a disappointing fundraising campaign, the National Children’s Museum opened its doors in a brand-new building at National Harbor today. In its new home, the museum has revamped its features and exhibits, unifying them with the overarching theme of global citizenship.
While the museum’s old home on H Street NE closed eight years ago, it has since been operating as “a museum without walls,” participating in events and activities like the Easter Egg Roll and National Day of Play. The old facility, then the Capital Children’s Museum, was housed in a former convent that didn’t completely serve the museum’s structural needs: In addition to lacking sufficient parking, it needed millions of dollars in repairs, says President and CEO Willard Whitson. So staff went hunting for a new location downtown, eventually settling on a mixed-use development construction project in L’Enfant Plaza. But that fell apart when the construction company scaled back its plans, and the allotted space for the museum became too constricting.
So that’s when National Harbor entered the picture. When the Peterson Companies were looking for new ways to attract visitors to the newly developed National Harbor in 2007, developer Milton Peterson offered to donate land to the museum. It was essentially a win-win situation: Relocating the attraction to the Oxon Hill, Md., development had the potential to draw new visitors to National Harbor, and the museum would finally be able to settle into a permanent home. The museum’s new location doesn’t offer the accessibility that its old location did—-National Harbor isn’t particularly Metro-accessible—-but Whitson said they opted to take “a clean-slate approach.”
Though, due to fundraising shortcomings, the National Children’s Museum had to scale back its building plans by a whopping 90 percent. Losing exhibits led to more donors pulling out their planned contributions. The museum’s facility budget fell from $182 million to $20 million, with Prince George’s County chipping in $4.25 million.
Now, visitors can expect to see a museum that hasn’t yet met all its potential, but still offers some unique, interactive exhibits. Upon walking into the space, visitors can orientate themselves using a world map that spreads across the floor; from there, they can move on to any of four new exhibits, including “My Town,” which is based on a hypothetical community in Prince George’s County. It’s set up for kids to create their own narrative for the town, which features a pizza parlor, a campaign office, and other components. Another exhibit showcases world cultures and how food availability, climate, environment, and other factors determine how people around the world meet basic needs.
For an even younger crowd, the museum offers activities tailored to children in early developmental stages. It includes an infant area, which emphasizes basic motor skills and socialization through play. A new 130-person theater has been added, in part, to showcase the museum’s own children productions company as well as outside performers.
Although it’s now about half the size of its old home, Whitson says the new museum’s content has been enhanced and redone, and more additions are still planned: It hopes to open a 60,000 square foot nutrition- and active-play-themed “outdoor experience” in 2014.
Due to a reporting error, the original version of this post misidentified the size of the National Children Museum’s theater and planned outdoor experience. The theater has a 130-person capacity; it is not 130 feet; and the outdoor exhibit is planned to be 60,000 feet, not 23,000 feet. The post has been corrected.