Chapter 4 — 1982-1999

Folk Toys and Distant Stars: 1982–1999

Director Peter Sterling

For The Children’s Museum, 1982 was a hallmark year beginning with the trustees’ decision to hire Peter Sterling as the new director. Succeeding Mildred Compton, Sterling stepped into an ideal situation; he took charge of a well-organized, well-run museum ready to build on its solid reputation as one of the finest children’s museums in the country.

Peter Sterling was executive director of The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis from 1982 to 1999.

In anticipation of Compton’s retirement, the museum’s board of trustees had formulated long-range plans to move the museum from its standing as one of the best of its type to the very best children’s museum in the world. Trustees and department heads worked for two years to design and refine a road map for the future, designating steps to take in each area of museum operations, including the development of a planned giving program and the computerization of museum records. Sterling’s hiring was also part of the strategy.

Chosen after a yearlong nationwide search, Sterling came to Indianapolis from Boston where he had been the director of the U.S.S. Constitution Museum Foundation. Having taught at both the secondary and college levels, he brought with him a national reputation for excellence in museum education, an arena in which The Children’s Museum already excelled. Under Sterling’s direction, it would enhance and expand its educational focus.

To commemorate Compton’s many achievements (which included the opening of the five-level, state-of-the-art 1976 building), the museum had commissioned local freelance writer Nancy Kriplen to write the first published history of the organization. The resulting book, Keep an Eye on That Mummy: The History of the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, was a model for future organizational histories.

Ritchey Woods and Planned Giving Program

Ritchey Woods was a favorite site for school children learning about nature and the environment.

Under Sterling’s leadership the museum literally gained new ground. Ritchey Woods, a 124-acre nature preserve in Hamilton Country, was given to the museum in 1982 by The Nature Conservancy. Though not accustomed to running a satellite operation, the museum took it on as an extension of its longstanding focus on natural history and its growing interest in environmental issues. Open to the public for guided nature walks, night hikes, star watching, and classes and workshops, Ritchey Woods became popular with school groups, families, and youth organizations.

In a more figurative sense, 1982 marked another type of groundbreaking—the introduction of the planned giving program. Providing supporters with a way to include the museum in their estate planning, the new program provided “greater opportunities for donors to become involved in the life of The Children’s Museum,” Sterling noted in the museum’s 1982 annual report.

A gift of another kind came the museum’s way in 1982 when American Fletcher National Bank gave it a former branch bank building at the corner of Illinois and 30th streets. The museum later tore down the building and landscaped the site, further expanding the museum campus.

In 1983 the museum added another outdoor enhancement—the Allen Clowes Garden Gallery. Made possible by a gift from local cultural patron Allen W. Clowes, the outdoor gallery near the museum’s front entrance featured whimsical animal sculptures as well as a pond that was home to turtles, fish, cattails, and wildflowers.

The Caplan Collection

Frank and Theresa Caplan donated their collection of 50,000 folk toys and artifacts from 120 countries to The Children’s Museum in 1984.

The following year brought the museum one of the most significant additions to its collection that it had ever received. In 1984 Frank and Theresa Caplan, founders of the internationally acclaimed toy company Creative Playthings and renowned world travelers, announced they were giving the museum their collection of toys and folk art. Consisting of more than 50,000 toys and folk art from 120 countries, the Caplan Collection became a crown jewel of the museum’s permanent collection.

The Caplans’ donation also became an important element in the conception and creation of the Passport to the World exhibit, which opened in 1986. Based on Sterling’s desire to provide visitors with a variety of educational opportunities, and inspired by the museum’s long tradition of encouraging cultural awareness, appreciation, and understanding, Passport to the World invited visitors to explore different countries and cultures around the globe. It quickly became a popular attraction for school groups and families.

Passport to the World was only one of the links the museum offered to the broader world. In 1987 Indianapolis hosted the Pan American Games, which brought thousands of athletes from North, Central, and South America, and the Caribbean to Central Indiana to compete in an array of sporting events from August 7 to 23. As part of a citywide effort to link programs and events to the games, The Children’s Museum hosted Pan Amania, an exhibit featuring the work of six Latin American artisans. After opening in Indianapolis, the exhibit traveled to 23 cities throughout the United States.

Learning, Thinking, Discovering

A recreation of Danner's general store was featured in Mysteries in History, an exhibit the museum opened in 1986.

The year before opening Passport to the World in 1986, the museum opened Mysteries in History, a gallery devoted to exploring another aspect of the world—the past. Using items from its collection, including a log cabin and Conestoga wagon, the gallery guided visitors through different time periods while asking them to look for clues that would help answer a series of questions.

To engage youngsters who lived nearby, the museum developed the Neighbors Program in 1986. The program provided free after-school and weekend activities, including a computer club.

With such innovative exhibits as those found in Mysteries in History and Passport to the World, as well as such community-centered learning projects as the Neighbors Program, The Children’s Museum was a natural choice to host the first International Congress on Learning in Museums. Attracting representatives from museums around the world and funded by the Smithsonian Institute’s Kellogg Museum Education Project, the conference explored the variety of programs, activities, and approaches to exhibits that museums were using to educate and enlighten visitors. By hosting the conference, The Children’s Museum boosted both its standing as a leader in museum education and its status within the international museum community.

With support from Indiana Bell (later Ameritech, now AT&T), the museum opened the Indiana Bell Think Tank, also in 1986. With a focus on young adolescents, especially girls and minorities, the program encouraged interest and involvement in the sciences. Staffed by volunteer scientists from the target groups, it gave students a chance to experience hands-on experiments in biology, botany, physics, and other scientific fields.

Exploration of another kind was the basis for The Search for the Golden Treasure, an exhibit based on the exploits of Indiana-born treasure hunter Mel Fisher, who discovered the remains of a pair of treasure-laden Spanish galleons in 1985. The exhibit, which the museum hosted in August and September, 1986, allowed visitors to touch one of the gold bars Fisher had recovered, use metal detectors to search for silver coins, and imagine what it must have been like to be aboard the ships which were ripped apart during a hurricane off the coast of Florida in 1622.

A New Welcome Center, Galleries, and Water Clock


Peter Sterling looks over plans for the construction of the new Welcome Center in the late 1980s.

In 1986 the museum launched a fundraising campaign dubbed “You Can Build a Mind.” Its purpose was to raise $14 million for a 77,000-square-foot expansion project—the museum’s popularity was straining its facilities. The success of that campaign, which exceeded its goal by $1.8 million, led to the construction of the 1988–1990 expansion, which included a new Welcome Center with a new curved staircase connecting the first level with the second, a restaurant area, a gallery (Spurlock) for temporary exhibits, and a permanent home for the Museum Guild’s annual Haunted House in the Johnson-Weaver Pavilion. The project also added classrooms, the now-iconic Water Clock designed by French physicist-artist Bernard Gitton, and a state-of-the-art planetarium.

Designed by the local architectural firm Woollen, Molzan and Partners, the expanded facilities not only gave the museum room to breathe, but during their construction the staff developed a temporary exhibit called “Structures.” Funded by the expansion’s architects, it gave visitors a chance to use hands-on activities to learn how buildings are made.

SpaceQuest Planetarium and Temporary Exhibits

Like Passport to the World, exploration was the basis for the SpaceQuest® Planetarium, which opened in 1989. Housed inside a specially designed copper-topped dome, it was (and still is) the largest public planetarium in Indiana—and at the time, the most advanced, using a computer-driven Digistar projector, one of only seven then in use in the world.

The museum extended its focus on celestial exploration with the opening of the exhibit Space: The Next Generation in May 1990. It was the inaugural exhibition in the museum’s new 15,000-square-foot Eli Lilly Center for Exploration, a gallery named in honor of Eli Lilly and funded by his friends and associates at Eli Lilly and Company. Focused specifically on young people between the ages of 10 and 18, the gallery opened with an appearance by astronaut and Indiana native Kenneth Bowersox. The museum followed with another space-themed exhibit in 1992, Mission to Mars. Both were reminders that space exploration had been—and remains today—a recurring topic in the museum’s history.

Another popular recurring topic is dinosaurs, which the museum began exploring in 1932 when a Prairie Trek expedition brought back a plaster cast of a dinosaur footprint. In 1989 the museum staged Dinosaurs Past and Present, a traveling exhibit from the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles. It featured what was then the largest collection of dinosaur art ever assembled, ranging from paintings to a lifelike, life-sized sculpture of an Allosaurus. In 1990 the museum hosted the traveling exhibit Dinomania, which featured 11 lifelike mechanical dinosaurs created by the Japanese firm Kokoro Co. Ltd. The dinosaurs were presented in a variety of settings, from a giant pop-up book and a movie set to inside a giant television screen and part of an amusement park ride. And in 1999 the museum hosted Kinetosaurs: Putting Some Teeth into Art and Science, which featured 10 mechanical dinosaurs that visitors could move using levers and pulleys. They were created by North Carolina-based sculptor John Payne (1949–2008).

Art of another sort was the focus of the 1996 exhibit Calder’s Art: A Circus of Creativity, which featured 100 small-scale, circus-themed works by internationally acclaimed sculptor Alexander Calder (1898–1976). Supported by the National Endowment for the Arts, the exhibit featured artworks from the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art. It was the world’s first major fine arts exhibit hosted by a children’s museum.

The Prelude Awards

The intersection of cultural pursuits and arts education was the basis for the annual Prelude Awards, which the museum introduced in 1984. Limited to Marion County high-school students, the program offered awards in visual arts, writing, dance, theater, vocal and instrumental music, and video. The awards were adjudicated by professional artists from each content area. In addition to the annual competition, which resulted in stipend awards for college, by 1998 the Prelude Awards also offered a free weeklong academy every June. Open to all students who took part in the awards competition, the academy allowed participants to work with adult mentors from the different creative disciplines. In 2010, The Children’s Museum turned over administration of the Prelude Awards to the Indiana Association of School Principals.

Rex’s Lending Center and the Traveling Exhibits Program

When Rex’s Lending Center opened in 1992, it was the nation’s first lending library inside a children’s museum.

In 1992 the museum set another precedent by becoming the first children’s museum to contain a lending library. Dubbed Rex’s Lending Center in honor of the museum’s life-size Tyrannosaurus rex model (which was donated in 2004 to the Children’s Museum of Evansville), it was a cooperative venture with the IUPUI Libraries and the Central Indiana Area Library Services Authority. Funding for the branch was provided by the W. K. Kellogg Foundation. That same year the museum introduced its traveling exhibits program, sending its Hands Can exhibit to the Cleveland Children’s Museum.

The CineDome and Festival Park

Four years later the museum unveiled a grand media venture with the opening of the CineDome,a large-format movie theater that was the first of its kind in Central Indiana. Part of a $14-million expansion project that also included Festival Park, a 12,000-square-foot special events space outside the museum’s front entrance, the CineDome featured Imagine Indiana, a specially commissioned 7-minute film that gave audiences a birds-eye view trip around Central Indiana. Additionally the theater showed films from the National Geographic Society and other original large-format productions.

A New Science Gallery

In 1996 the museum also unveiled a revamped and expanded gallery, newly named ScienceWorks in the Dow Science Center. Still in operation today, it contains an array of hands-on activities that explore such concepts as fluid motion, biotechnology, life underground, and construction engineering. It’s a dynamic place in which science is fun and engaging.

Neighborhood and Community Involvement

In 1997, The Children’s Museum was one of three institutions—along with the National Aquarium in Baltimore and the Houston Museum of Fine Arts—selected to receive the National Award for Museum Service from the Institute for Museum and Library Services for its commitment to the surrounding neighborhood and the Indianapolis community. Sterling and Euna Pittman, the chair of the museum’s board of trustees, accepted the award at a ceremony at the White House in Washington, D.C.

Enid Goodrich Bequest

Also in 1997, the museum announced that it had received the largest single financial gift in its history—a $40.4 million bequest from the estate of longtime supporter Enid Goodrich. The widow of Pierre Goodrich, who helped finance Eugene Pulliam’s publishing company Central Indiana Newspapers, Inc., she bequeathed a large portion of her fortune to The Children’s Museum in appreciation for all its work on behalf of children. Young at heart herself, Goodrich confessed during one of her first visits to the museum that she had always wanted to ride its Carousel. When she finally did, the experience was so enjoyable that it solidified her relationship with the museum.

Peter Sterling’s Retirement

The Goodrich bequest was the capstone of Sterling’s career at the museum, which had begun more than 15 years earlier with the introduction of a planned giving program. Mrs. Goodrich’s gift epitomized that program’s purpose—to provide the museum with additional revenue sources. At a meeting in September 1998 Sterling told the board he planned to retire the following June. Saying it was time for the museum “to go to the next level,” Sterling decided that after 17 years at the helm, he was content to let his successor determine how to make that happen.

Sterling retired to Waynesville, North Carolina. He passed away there on Aug. 30, 2016, at the age of 81.

Peter Sterling was executive director of The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis from 1982 to 1999.
Ritchey Woods was a favorite site for school children learning about nature and the environment.
Frank and Theresa Caplan donated their collection of 50,000 folk toys and artifacts from 120 countries to The Children’s Museum in 1984.
A Chinese shadow puppet is one of the objects in the museum’s Caplan Collection.
A recreation of Danner's general store was featured in Mysteries in History, an exhibit the museum opened in 1986.
The 1985 exhibit The Search for the Golden Treasure was based on the exploits of Indiana-born treasure hunter Mel Fisher.
Peter Sterling looks over plans for the construction of the new Welcome Center in the late 1980s.
One of the results of the museum’s 1988-1990 expansion project was a new Welcome Center with a sunburst window and an outdoor plaza.
For the 1999 exhibit Kinetosaurs: Putting Some Teeth into Art and Science, sculptor John Payne created a metal Parasaurolophus that could be moved by pulling on wires, as if it were a giant marionette.
When Rex’s Lending Center opened in 1992, it was the nation’s first lending library inside a children’s museum.
In 1997 the museum’s executive director Peter Sterling—seen here with First Lady Hillary Clinton and an unidentified woman—attended a White House ceremony honoring the museum’s commitment to community development.
In 1997, Enid Goodrich left the museum the largest single gift in its history—a bequest of $40.4 million.
In 1996 an exhibit featuring the artwork of Alexander Calder was the first major fine arts exhibit hosted by a children’s museum.
The Cinedome being built.