21st-Century Vision: 1999–2016
In a sense Jeffrey Patchen returned to his roots in June 1999 when he took the reins as only the fifth director in the 74-year history of The Children’s Museum. While his title was new—the Board of Trustees named him both president and chief executive officer—his primary responsibility was the same as his predecessors’: to educate, enlighten, and engage museum visitors through innovative exhibits and programs.
As the former state arts consultant for the Indiana Department of Education (1984–1990), as well as the holder of the nation’s first endowed chair in arts education at the University of Tennessee (1990–96) and senior program officer for national programs at the Getty Institute for the Arts (1996–1999), Patchen was experienced in the practical application of educational concepts. Just as importantly, he wasn’t afraid of change.
In fact, if any single word can be said to define Patchen’s tenure to date, it’s “change.” During his years at the helm, the museum has undergone some of the most significant changes in its history, including the dramatic expansion and alterations of its physical facilities, a redefinition of its operating philosophy, a renewed emphasis on fiscal responsibility, a greater understanding of the museum’s value to the local economy, more community collaborations, and greater engagement with the world-at-large.
Every change made has been derived from thoughtful discussion, supported by a vision, and implemented with the best interests of the institution and the people it serves in mind.
An early example of just such a change is infoZone. Opened in December 2000, infoZone is a cooperative venture between the museum and the Indianapolis Public Library. It was the nation’s first—and today remains the only—public library branch inside a museum.
Originally located on the Lower Level, in 2009 infoZone moved to a more accessible, larger space at the top of the Welcome Center’s entry ramp. That location allows it to provide library services even when the museum is not open, something that both the museum and the library considered important for neighborhood children.
Containing 15,000 books, videos, CDs, magazines, and other materials, infoZone allows its youngest visitors to practice pre-reading skills using a magnetic activity wall, child-friendly computers created specifically for the pre-reader, and green-screen technology. Older visitors can access information from websites and databases in the library’s techZone computer lab.
Economic Impact Studies
Before undertaking any significant changes, Patchen and the Board of Trustees wanted to assess the museum’s effect on its immediate community. In 2001, they commissioned nationally known economic development consultant Mark Rosentraub to examine the museum’s financial impact on central Indiana.
Rosentraub’s study revealed that the museum contributed $37.6 million annually to the local economy. That finding quantified what museum officials had long felt—that The Children’s Museum is a significant contributor to the region’s economic vitality. Subsequent studies would note its continuing impact: as of 2011 when Rosentraub conducted his most recent study for the museum, the impact had reached $66 million.
With his roots in education—his bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees are all in various educational disciplines—Patchen had come to The Children’s Museum with a passion for the learning potential it offered. But not just learning in a general sense.
Patchen was an early proponent of family learning, an approach to museum education that focuses on developing exhibits and programs designed to engage families and encourage interaction among adults and children. Broadening the museum’s traditional focus on children as its primary audience, family learning became the determining factor for decisions about all of the museum’s future exhibits and programs. It also became a crucial component in a new strategic planning process.
With Rosentraub’s economic impact study in hand and family learning as an operating philosophy, Patchen, the Board, and the staff set out to develop a new strategic plan for the 2002 to 2006 period. That process resulted in five distinct goals that would drive its efforts and actions over the coming five years:
- Create extraordinary family learning experiences.
- Design and build the physical and virtual museum to meet the changing needs of visitors, community, and staff.
- Lead a revitalization effort within the neighborhood to create an extraordinary place for families to live, work, learn, shop, play, and prosper.
- Operate the museum as a world-class institution.
- Ensure the financial means and reputation to fulfill the museum’s mission.
The plan also included a new mission statement: “To create extraordinary learning experiences that have the power to transform the lives of children and families.” That was paired with a new vision statement: “It is our vision to be recognized as the global leader among all museums and cultural institutions serving children and families.” Both reflected the new emphasis on family learning.
So did the decision to have the museum host the nation’s first conference on family learning in 2003. Simple in concept, yet demanding in execution—influencing everything from the design and construction of exhibits and galleries to the interpretive presentation of objects on display—family learning had gained in popularity among museum administrators, educators, and supporters to such a degree that the conference attracted attendees from around the country. As the host, The Children’s Museum solidified its standing as a leader in the movement.
Power of Children Campaign and Capital Expansions
Completion of a feasibility study that revealed that support would be strong for a proposed fundraising effort dubbed “Power of Children Capital Campaign.” The campaign, which occurred in two phases, launched in 2003.
While the Cinedome attracted its fair share of school groups and families eager to see large-format films, there was another type of attraction that museum officials felt might draw more visitors—dinosaurs. A proven favorite in other museums, as well as one that had attracted crowds to The Children’s Museum in the past (the traveling exhibit A T-Rex Named Sue was a huge hit in 2001), dinosaurs became the focus of a planning effort aimed at converting the Cinedome into a new exhibit—Dinosphere: Now You’re in Their World. The outwardly visible sign of the tremendous changes inside were three iconic, full-size Alamosaurs—a mother and two of her young—“breaking” out of the wall of Dinosphere. The Alamosaurs were sculpted by Canadian paleo artist Brian Cooley.
In tandem with the Cinedome conversion, the museum added a new four-level parking garage connected to the museum by a covered walkway elevated above Illinois Street, as well as expanded dining and storage facilities and new ramps for entering and exiting Dinosphere. These improvements plus funds allocated to neighborhood improvements comprised Phase I at a cost of $57 million.
Completed in 2009, the $74-million Phase II of the Power of Children Campaign was the largest in the museum’s history. Funds raised helped pay for the museum’s new Welcome Center, the elevated Skywalk, renovation of infoZone and the School Services wing, passenger pick-up and drop-off areas, and four new permanent exhibits—The Power of Children: Making a Difference®, Fireworks of Glass, Take Me There®: Egypt, and National Geographic Treasures of the Earth.
The Power of Children Awards
To recognize the impact that young people can have when they dedicate themselves to issues about which they care, the museum initiated The Power of Children Awards in 2005. Open to youngsters in Grades 6 through 11, the awards reward the efforts of youths who make a difference in their communities with grants to continue their projects, college scholarship funds, and a special awards ceremony. The Power of Children Awards will celebrate their 10th anniversary on Nov. 7, 2014. During their first decade, the awards have grown from a statewide program to a national program with 50 winners from 11 states assisting causes and communities in 57 countries.
The museum had long operated outreach programs aimed at making the schools, children, and families in the surrounding neighborhoods feel welcome. But the museum’s new five-year plan extended those efforts further: the board allocated $3 million (including $2 million in a revolving loan fund) to help the museum work with neighborhood groups to revitalize housing, upgrade streets, sidewalks and lighting, and take other steps to improve and enhance the quality of life for area residents and businesses.
Museum officials and trustees worked with neighborhood groups and city government to enhance both the appearance and infrastructure of the surrounding area. This effort involved repairing sewers, repaving streets, and creating new sidewalks and curbs, as well as adding decorative lights, enhancing bus shelters, and creating a landscaped entrance to the 29th/30th Street corridor from I-65 west of the museum. In tandem with that were the efforts of the museum’s Neighborhood Development Working Group to get area residents involved in such initiatives as the creation of a Children’s Museum District and identifying development opportunities in the neighborhoods surrounding the museum.
Working with institutions, businesses, redevelopment groups, neighborhood associations, and residents of six Mid-North neighborhoods, in 2011 the museum also served as convener for the development of a Mid-North Quality of Life Plan.
Throughout 2011 more than 490 neighborhood representatives and 79 organizations met regularly to develop the plan, which was unveiled at the museum in January 2012. Covering more than 4,700 households and 10,000 people, the plan calls for a cradle-to-career family-learning component that the museum pledged to lead by offering free museum memberships to neighborhood families, an affordable summer camp for area students, and scholarships to the museum’s preschool program.
In 2012, the City of Indianapolis charged the museum with redevelopment of the former Winona Hospital site. The defunct hospital, which was contiguous to the museum’s property and had closed in 2004, was demolished by the City of Indianapolis in 2011 with funds provided by a federal grant through the city’s Department of Metropolitan Development. Through a public-private partnership between the City of Indianapolis, TRex Enterprises (a company formed at the request of The Children's Museum), and TWG Development, LLC, a 50-unit afforable housing complex called Illinois Place Apartments opened at the former Winona site in December 2013. Residents of the complex enjoy the use of a business center, exercise room, community room, scholarship program, and a free membership to The Children's Museum.
National Medal for Museum and Library Service
In 2014 The Children's Museum received the nation's highest honor for community service, the National Medal for Museum and Library Service, awarded by the Institute for Museum and Library Services. First Lady of the United States Michelle Obama presented the award to Patchen and community representatives Spencer and Erica Hahn in a White House ceremony on May 8. The museum was one of 10 museums and libraries to receive the honor in 2014.
The National Medal was given in recognition of the museum's enduring committment to innovative communtiy service through programs such as:
- The Children's Museum Neighborhood Club, which offers free museum memberships to all families in six neighborhoods surrounding the museum.
- A $2-million, zero-interest revolving loan fund that supports neighborhood revitalization efforts.
- StarPoint Summer Camp, an affordable, curriculum-based camp for neighborhood youths.
- The Foster Family Membership Program, which provides Indiana foster families with free museum memberships.
- The statewide Access Pass program, which enables Indiana families receiving state assistance to visit the museum for just $1 per person per visit.
The Children's Museum of Indianapolis is one of a very small number of museums and libraries to have received the National Medal for Museum and Library Service twice. The museum was awarded its first medal in 1997.
In 2010 the museum realized another long-held dream with the opening of The Children’s Museum Preschool. Utilizing the rich and varied resources available throughout the museum, the preschool strives to stimulate the imaginations and encourage the intellectual and social development of the three- four- and five-year-olds who attend either its two or three half-day sessions. Influenced by the Reggio Emilia Approach and the work of Maria Montessori, the preschool provides its students with daily educational experiences in the galleries before the museum opens to the public.
Though the museum had been sending traveling exhibitions throughout North America since 1992, with Patchen’s arrival it actively began forging relationships with institutions abroad as part of an effort to build recognition for the museum internationally. By 2003 it was collaborating with and offering its services to museums, libraries, and cultural and scientific groups in China, Jordan, The Netherlands, and the United Arab Emirates. Over the years that list expanded to include Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the Dominican Republic.
The museum’s traveling exhibits program became an essential component of its focus on building international relationships. Developing exhibits with cross-cultural appeal, the museum was able to extend its reach far beyond Central Indiana. Partnerships with internationally known brands have enabled the museum to develop touring exhibits that have traveled through North and Central America, including Dora and Diego—Let’s Explore!, developed with Nickelodeon, and LEGO®: Travel Adventure and LEGO®: Castle Adventure, developed with LEGO Systems, Inc.
Whether on-site or traveling, temporary or permanent, exhibit development remains a key component of the museum’s mission. Among some of the most significant exhibits the museum has developed or hosted during Patchen’s tenure are:
In October 2000 the museum opened this special exhibit, which featured the space capsule that carried Indiana native Gus Grissom into orbit in 1961.
In December 2000 the museum opened a new permanent exhibit centered around the popular Carousel that includes a tree house, a puzzles and games area, a playhouse, and more.
The museum started 2001 with this traveling exhibit created by the Anne Frank Center in New York City. It featured a replica of Anne’s favorite room in The Annex, as well family photos, diary passages, and statements from Holocaust survivors and those who helped them.
The first museum project in which family learning principles were integral from planning through implementation, this permanent exhibit opened in June 2004. Designed to immerse visitors into the Cretaceous Period, 65 million years ago when dinosaurs last roamed the Earth, it contains dinosaur fossils and life-sized reconstructions set in realistic environments.
Created by world-renowned glass artist Dale Chihuly, this 43-foot-tall sculpture debuted in the museum’s core in March 2006.
An international traveling exhibit that the museum developed in cooperation with the National Geographic Society, opened in November 2006. It focused on how modern-day land, sea, air, and space explorers use maps to navigate their journeys.
Opened in November 2007, this permanent exhibit focuses on courage in the face of prejudice and fear as personified by three young people— civil rights pioneer Ruby Bridges, teenaged HIV/AIDS activist (and Indiana native) Ryan White, and Holocaust victim Anne Frank.
Opened in June 2009 this was the first exhibit in a series devoted to immersing visitors in the life and culture of a single country. The second in the series, Take Me There: China, will open in May 2014.
Also opening in June 2009, this exhibit allowed visitors to step back in time and explore the fascinating world of the Egyptian pharaohs. It contained more than 100 artifacts, including objects from the tombs of Tutankhamun and other Egyptian pharaohs spanning more than 2,000 years of Egyptian history.
Developed by The Children’s Museum and toy company Mattel, Inc. to mark the 50th anniversary of Mattel’s iconic doll, this exhibit—which opened in December 2009—showcased Barbie fashion and style through the years and featured gowns and other garments created for Barbie by renowned designers like Bill Blass, Bob Mackie, and Vera Wang.
Making its debut in November 2011, this exhibit is focused on the exciting science of archaeology. It features replicas of the tomb of the ancient Egyptian pharaoh Seti I, the Terra Cotta Warriors of China, and the Caribbean shipwreck of Captain Kidd’s Cara Merchant.
- Playscape Reinvention
A benchmark in the museum field when it opened in 1981, this gallery for children birth through age 5 reopened on Aug. 31, 2013. Its redesign and expansion is based on the most up-to-date research on early learning, with a focus on creating a family-centered environment that is immersive and interactive.
When Patchen accepted the position as the museum’s president and CEO he did so with the intention of building on what his predecessors had done. During his first 13 years on the job he did more than that—working closely with the Board of Trustees he also created a legacy of improvements, expansions, and enhancements that moved The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis into the ranks of elite museums worldwide.
While the museum had long claimed the title of the world’s biggest children’s museum, reviewers for an array of national magazines, newspapers, and broadcast outlets have rated it as the best of its type as well. That’s due not only to the quality of the facilities and exhibits, but also to the fact that in the 21st-century the museum has placed a greater emphasis on developing and bringing new exhibits and in refreshing existing ones.
Change is essential to attracting new visitors and encouraging repeat visits. With the help of an active Board of Trustees and a talented, skilled staff, Patchen has guided The Children’s Museum a leader to its current position as a leader in museum education, collaboration, and innovation.