The Madison Children’s Museum is marking its 40th year and the 10th in its current location, but its board members never thought it would have to close the building.
“We should be celebrating,” said Deb Gilpin, the museum’s president and CEO.
Deb was the speaker at the July 23 Waunakee Rotary meeting, held on Zoom. She noted that Rotary has been one of several partners with the museum.
She asked the members to take a moment to think about their own childhoods and the memories that made them happiest. She said childhood hasn’t changed.
“It’s the world around them that have changed,” she said.
She noted that children learn through play, and quoted Mr. Rogers who said, “Play is the work of children.”
With so many activities canceled, along with school the past few months, their learning is becoming more informal.
The COVID-19 pandemic has drastically changed the museum’s operations, along with its revenue stream. Prior to the pandemic, it saw millions of visitors per year, 25 percent who were not from the area. It has 6,400 member families, 125 of whom are from Waunakee. It offered three to four programs per day on different topics, and had an annual budget of $3 million with nearly 80 employees.
The museum has been a tourism destination and ranked in the top 10 for all children’s museums across the country.
“That’s an incredible honor,” Deb said, adding the museum’s leadership and partners have made that happened.
About five years ago, the museum begin working to tackle some societal disparities with equity programs. They look at four levels: access, diversity, equity and inclusion.
Access, Deb said, means that people know where the front door is, they can get to it, and get through it.
Diversity means all are reflected and respected.
Equity means all are supported, and systems and policies ensure their success. And inclusion allows them to have a voice in the organization.
Deb said the building is across the street from YWCA that offers transitional housing. About 80 children live at the Y, but they didn’t visit the museum. Deb approached the residents and asked why, and was told they didn’t think the museum saw them as a good neighbor.
Since them, children have been welcomed and some who live at the Y have joined the staff.
But the pandemic brought about many changes. Revenue was lost in membership, admissions, rentals and fundraising events. Contributions are unknown for the year but are so far somewhat down.
The museum receives very little government funding, Deb said.
In March, 29 of the employees were terminated. Now only 11 are there full time.
Those employees are out in the community, hosting programs such as sidewalk activities all over the city. Activities kits filled with hands-on projects for kids are also available for purchase.
Deb said so far, the plan is to remain closed this fall and not open again until at least 2021, Deb said.
The museum had 30 animals and had to find foster homes for them. That worked for all the animals except the homing pigeons, who kept returning to the museum, so someone now feeds them every few days.
Deb said the museum is focusing on serving the community greatly impacted by inequity.
“Kids are needing more things to do, and adults need kids to find things to do,” she said.  
Right now, the museum is planning for its reopening and watching how others are going about it. The museum’s board is also working on a capital campaign that is in its final stages
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