Saginaw, Michigan, hasn’t had an easy time in recent years. Once heavily dependent on the car industry, the loss of well-paying automotive jobs, and its domino effect as related industries failed one after another, have left the region reeling.

As always, though, there are silver linings, and one of the brightest spots in Saginaw is the Mid-Michigan Children’s Museum (MMCM). This is a 10-year-long story that begins with a community in need, gains momentum with volunteers who wouldn’t give up and a design team that never fails to amaze, and culminates with a bold, vibrant space that ignites the imagination of every kid, as well as that of everyone who’s ever been one – everyone, then.

“It literally takes your breath away. Kids have never seen anything like this, even in their schools, and it makes them feel important, which is a very big deal to them,says Angela Barris, president and ceo of MMCM.

“I knew we’d accomplished our goal when a little girl of seven or eight, in a group of kids from an underprivileged urban setting, stood at the entrance with her hands on her hips and matter-of-factly said: “Ms Barris, this is the most beautiful place I have ever been in my whole life”.

A place made from dreams

Angela Barris beams as she shows off the museum. The place has an infectious energy that sends the imagination soaring, whether you’re four or 44.
“The combination of colours and contrast just explodes when you enter the building, which was formerly a car dealership, donated for the project. Nothing gives you any hint of what awaits you when you come through the doors,says Ms Barris.
The process began at a kitchen table in 1999 with a handful of people who had been to children’s museums elsewhere and saw a need in Saginaw.

The conversation led first to a cumbersome travelling educational exhibit, but it quickly became apparent that a permanent museum was a goal worth pursuing. They incorporated into a non-profit organisation, got a grant to research the issue, and selected a design team – Sharon and Peter Exley of ‘architectureisfun’, an award-winning Chicago-based architectural and design firm that specialises in educational and interactive environments for children and families.
“AIF did focus groups with kids, educators, parents and librarians in schools all around the community,says Ms Barris. “They call them ‘dream catching sessions’, and kids would draw things they wanted, things they knew about this region, and many of those ideas turned out to be actual gallery items – exhibits on the Saginaw River, healthcare (hospitals are our biggest employer) and, of course, industry.

“The more exhibit ideas there were, of course, the more money was required. It was amazing. The volunteers were able to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars based on drawings by the kids and of the concepts from Sharon and Peter.”
After years of slowly building momentum the decision was made to choose a date for the grand opening: June 2008.
“We went into high gear and made our deadline,says Angela Barris, “But we had to make a few sacrifices. The multiplex theatre had to go, as did some additional square footage and expensive window treatments. None of the cuts compromised the educational experience. We still have some money to raise, but we’re open, and we’re having a positive impact.
With over 16,000 square feet of gallery space and additional space that houses programme rooms, classrooms, gift shop, food service and administrative offices, the space is used to its fullest extent and is creatively designed to accommodate eight continuing exhibit galleries. The museum will also provide rotating travelling exhibit space and hosts more than 65,000 visitors per year.

300 play dates, every day

Sharon Exely says AIF used the best tools in its box for this project: the freedom to dream and Wilsonart laminates.
“Since we began our studio over 15 years ago, laminates, and especially Wilsonart, have been a part of our projects. We don’t think of laminate as an everyday surface material. We consider it a design tool, a way for us to add ‘wow’ to shelving, cabinetry and otherwise pedestrian elements.

“For example, the creation of the art zone at MMCM was in response to a child at one of the dream-catching sessions requesting ‘extreme art’. The wild laminate pattern, Kaleidescope from the Wilsonart Indie Collection, within the Art Mart helps to reinforce the concept that freedom can be found while engaging in artistic endeavours. The Wilsonart Garden Oasis and Desert Oasis laminates on the ‘Try It’ science exploration tables felt like something from the Renaissance – it provides a little attitude alongside its properties as a durable surface.

Attitude and toughness are a winning combination at MMCM. Standing up to the vigour of up to 300 kids a day is only part of the story; many surfaces are also rigorously cleaned once a week, twice a week, once a day, some even twice a day.
“Cleaning is obviously a big portion of our budget,Ms Barris says. “In addition to our professional night crews we also have adults with disabilities coming in on a regular basis. There are always concerns about contamination in a place like this, and with the H1N1 ’flu virus there are no exceptions – everything gets cleaned and sanitised, thoroughly and often.

“The Wilsonart surfaces are holding up wonderfully. Every day they look as bright and fresh as they did when we opened.
“Children are tough on materials and their environments,says Peter Exley “And safety is always a concern, as is accessibility. These are non-negotiable. The lessons we’ve learned from previous projects are to use materials, finishes and elements we know to be tough, durable, long lasting and easy to maintain.

“Maintenance is a huge issue for our clients and when our projects are successful, the number of visitors is often even more than anticipated. We use products we can count on, over and over again. We like to use ordinary hard-working materials in extraordinary ways.”

Please touch!

Every exhibit in the museum is hands-on:
Medical and dental examination rooms (complete with light boxes for viewing x-rays!), called Insides Out; ‘Maze’ with interesting textures to touch and challenging puzzles to ponder, which enhances kids’ mental mapping and recall skills; The ‘Art Mart’ provides experiences which incorporate the study of movement, space, line, shape and colour, which provide a solid base for the study of other subjects, such as maths and science; ‘Aunt Sugar’s Farm’ brings Michigan’s agricultural heritage to life for kids who may think their food originates in the local grocery store; the ‘Car Works’ and ‘Try It’ areas encourage them to problem-solve at being inventors, mechanics and mechanical engineers; and, ‘Water Works’ lets kids understand water and hydrodynamics on a scale that’s fun and relevant to their world.

“Every exhibit is designed to be gender-neutral; there’s no expectation that only girls should go into the kitchen and only boys should go into the mechanical area,says Angela Barris. “Kids feel comfortable to go anywhere, and parents are less intimidated too.
“We actually get a lot of compliments from the parents on the quality of the exhibits and their surfaces. They often ask what they are, because they never get to see these fun colours or designs at merchants such as Lowes or Builders Square.
The life of an exhibit is usually five to seven years, when they’re either refurbished or replaced. Themes may evolve with the community – there’s a lot of buzz about green energy in Michigan right now – and there’s a growing trend towards sending exhibits on the road in exchange programmes with other museums, which is yet another argument for building them with materials that are durable and easy to
care for.

“This project has become so much more than just a children’s museum to the community,says Ms Barris. “Its success has inspired our neighbours to spruce up their buildings. The local hospital system uses it to bolster the area’s quality of life when recruiting new doctors. And it opens the eyes of older kids, teenagers, to career opportunities in education, and, of course, design!
“The MMCM makes a powerful statement that this region has value, because it is willing to make a huge investment like this in itself and its future.
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