The Minnesota Children's Museum is Revamped and Ready to Play

After a renovation, the Minnesota Children’s Museum is more modern, dynamic and fun than ever.

The old vibe of the Minnesota Children’s Museum was decidedly wild and zany—a jumble of bright purples, reds and greens on the walls made for a look that was becoming dated. But a huge overhaul has given the space, designed by the architecture firm Meyer Scherer & Rockcastle (MSR), an entirely new aesthetic. Originally scheduled to open in April, the new and improved Minnesota Children’s Museum will open in June.

Main areas now present a calmer palette of whites, muted grays and bold charcoal accents that set off the portals denoting exhibit entrances. These gateways —each highlighted by its own burst of color—draw the eye along the broad main hall, helping visitors journey intuitively through the museum without the challenging navigation the old layout sometimes caused.

The former design was a relic of the museum’s 1995 move to downtown St. Paul into what was then a newly constructed building. They were making the leap from Bandana Square, where an 18,000-square-foot space had served as the museum’s home since 1985. The first incarnation of the Minnesota Children’s Museum was housed in the warehouse district of Minneapolis, which the rapidly growing organization outgrew just four years after it opened in 1981. The first expansion, when they moved from Minneapolis to Bandana Square, saw yearly attendance leap from 80,000 to 200,000. The 1995 move allowed enough room to accommodate even more; 375,000 people came through the new building that first year.

Recent attendance numbers of about 450,000 annual visitors were leaving the museum feeling crunched again. At peak times, crowds could be perplexed by the somewhat inconvenient setup: Most visitors entered through the second-floor skyway, then had to trundle down to the first floor to buy their tickets and enter the museum. In the main hall, a large staircase dominated the center of the building, with switchbacks leading all the way to the fourth floor. Some confusion came from the fact that the third floor held only a long hallway with a reading corner.

The fact that the building had only two elevators to deal with masses of strollers was inconvenient, and the bathrooms were insufficient for daily traffic. Visitors often bemoaned the lack of a café or restaurant in the museum; there had been a food court in the adjoining skyway when the Minnesota Children’s Museum originally opened, so designers hadn’t included any food service within the museum. A small room with several vending machines was the only offering.

The museum hired MSR, which designed the Mill City Museum, to tackle all these issues while creating a modern design aesthetic. Now, six years after a long process of fundraising and researching, the museum’s facelift is complete.

Form and Function

The first thing visitors encounter at the remodeled museum is the new box office, located off the skyway on the second floor. Parents with strollers can rejoice: now you can buy tickets without heading downstairs. The new café and retail store adjoin the entrance, and three new galleries complete the second floor; Sprouts is the largest of these. This new toddler area is 50 percent bigger than its predecessor, Habitot, and even has its own water feature. Now if a family with a toddler goes only to Sprouts, they can get an experience that reflects entire museum, says Bob Ingrassia, the museum’s vice president of external relations. Creativity Jam, a new space for collaborative art projects, and Imaginopolis, an “abstract space” where imagination reigns, are also housed on this level.

A new and reconfigured main stairwell has been relocated from the center of the building to the front, freeing up the central corridor for other uses. Navigation is simplified by completely skipping the third floor, which holds only offices.

Speaking of those offices, they used to occupy the main floor along West Seventh Street. This setup didn’t make much sense, since that spot is especially well-lit and accessible. So MSR transformed a two-story space in the rear of the building into two usable floors and moved the offices to a newly built interior floor. With the offices out of the way, architects added a bump-out, four stories high, toward West Seventh Street, featuring a glass façade housing a gigantic climbing feature called the Scramble. “We moved the fun to the front of the building,” Ingrassia quips.

The Scramble has integrated stairs and platforms for adults and for children who want to build up their confidence to navigate the structure. “This says to parents [and all visitors], ‘You’re welcome here; we want you to participate and we’ve made accommodations for you to join in the fun,’ ” Ingrassia says.
The new climbing structure gives kids the opportunity for “safe risk-taking,” says Jessica Turgeon, the museum’s director of strategic projects. “It’s about making choices and trying things out.” The slide is accessible to visitors in wheelchairs via transfer platforms.

Since the third floor isn’t a destination, visitors can continue their exploration on the first or fourth level. Downstairs, they’ll find two indoor galleries and a new seasonal outdoor exhibit called the Backyard. Super Awesome Adventures is a gallery that lives up to its name with a laser maze, carpet skating (strap some plastic strips over your shoes and go for it) and a green screen. Forces at Play, which opened before the museum closed for the remodel, has already proven popular among children and adults. Visitors engineer Ping-Pong ball launchers by configuring tubes blowing air, then launch the balls at targets—and sometimes each other. There’s also a room with a specially designed “wet floor” where you can wash a wacky car that’s cobbled together from a myriad of different vehicles.

The fourth floor houses the Studio, a maker space with real tools and rotating materials. This level is also home to the updated pretend town, Our World, a mini Minnesota town which includes a firehouse, new multi-level post office and a play food cart. There is a gallery for traveling exhibits on this level, as well as Tip Top Terrace, the revamped rooftop space that offers a focus on the urban experience among the surrounding skyscrapers.

Between the addition, the new third-floor offices and overall reorganization, the museum gained 35 percent more floor space for visitor experience. The changes aren’t only physical, though: the experience itself has also evolved.

Powerful Play

Research—and decades of museum experience—shows that open-ended play helps children become well-rounded, innovative and creative people. For this reason, the new exhibits are less about something specific content areas and more about the exploration and the process of playing and learning.

The museum aims to encourage a child’s active imagination. The old ant hill exhibit presented information about ants, for example, but what really made it a perennial favorite was the chance to climb and play inside tunnels. The new 50-foot Scramble serves that purpose now, but its more abstract quality lets kids create their own stories. “You could be a polar explorer or underground; you could be on the moon—whatever the child decides they want it to be rather than having to say ‘I am an ant and only an ant,’ ” Ingrassia says.

“In our new exhibits, we put the power of open-ended play front and center,” says museum president Dianne Krizan. “These are activities that get children thinking and moving, pursuing their own interests and, of course, having tons of fun. We call it ‘powerful play.’ ”

Children learn naturally through play because it’s fun, engaging and sticks with them throughout their lives, says Barbara Hahn, the museum’s vice president of learning innovation. Adults can support play by modeling it themselves, asking open-ended questions, making observations, posing a lot of challenges and allowing kids to focus on the process rather than the outcome. “It’s not about the right answer, but about how they explored along the way,” Hahn says.

A big part of the museum’s mission is to highlight the importance of this kind of play. In comparison to the ’80s and ’90s, today’s children spend much less time playing each day, Ingrassia notes. This is a result of many factors, including increased screen time and a greater focus on organized and adult-driven activities. The museum aims to help parents offset this trend, and believes their remodeled space will support that goal.

“This is open-ended play,” Krizan says. “It’s driven by children. And it’s very powerful.”

Tips for Enjoying the Updated Museum
An array of exhibits caters to both younger and older kids.

Best for older kids: Before the expansion, the museum was aimed at kids from 18 months to 8 years old. Now that age extends to 12. Besides the maker studios, where an ever-changing array of materials and tools allow endless possibilities, older kids will also enjoy the Creativity Jam’s animation station and the Super Awesome Adventure Gallery’s laser maze and green-screen climbing wall.

Best for toddlers: Sprouts is an easily accessible and bigger exhibit designed especially for children under 4. In addition, most other exhibits now include a Tot Spot that reflects what’s happening in the exhibit for older children, but is designed to help younger children grow into the bigger experience.

New Conveniences
The museum offers new amenities for adults.

The museum’s new café is operated by Lancer Hospitality and features a fresh, modern menu including flatbread pizza, hand-tossed salads and an array of kid-friendly food.

An adjoining coffee bar offers a full line of Caribou Coffee drinks.

Another elevator has been added, along with more multi-stall restrooms in the main area and family restrooms in Sprouts.

Check the website for details about an outdoor block party and the museum’s grand opening.