Move to Long Beach Plaza Doubles Space : Children's Museum Finds Downtown Site Ideal

Times Staff Writer

Workers at the Long Beach Children's Museum say there is only one disadvantage to their new location downtown: Attracted by an array of dress-up clothes in the window, several derelicts a day walk into the establishment thinking it's a thrift store.

"It's not a big problem," said Annette Armstrong, one of the museum's part-time cashiers. "I just tell them it's a children's museum and gently show them out."

Other than that, museum managers say, their new home fronting Long Beach Boulevard in the Long Beach Plaza Mall is perfect.

The 5,000-square-foot storeroom has more than doubled the museum's size. Five feet from a bus stop, it is easily accessible. Highly visible, it attracts a more diverse crowd, ethnically and economically, than the museum's former site in the affluent east side.

And because it's downtown, said museum co-founder Sally Sherlock, the 2-year-old establishment is part of that area's economic resurgence.

"We'll be here for at least two years," said Sherlock, now president of the museum's board of trustees.

However, she said, the Dec. 5 move was only the second phase of a plan to give Long Beach an even larger permanent children's museum by 1997.

That was Sherlock's vision four years ago when she and Liz Kennard, the museum's full-time director, first began dreaming about an institution for Long Beach children, modeled after those in Los Angeles, Denver and several other U. S. cities.

First Opened in Marina Pacifica

Opened on a shoestring budget in 1985 in a donated room at the upscale Marina Pacifica Mall near Alamitos Bay, the museum attracted more than 50,000 visitors in its first two years.

"I knew it would catch on," Sherlock said. "When we first started talking about this, there were 40 children's museums in the nation; now there are 400. Parents are becoming very involved in the educational process of their children."

The museum decided to move to the Long Beach Plaza Mall, which also donated the space, primarily to accommodate more visitors and exhibits, Sherlock said. So far, though, fewer people are visiting the new site than the old one: an average of 100 a day compared with 120 to 200 a day at Marina Pacifica.

Sherlock said people have probably been confused about the location of the museum, which was closed for a month while the new site was remodeled. After the holidays, she said, the museum board will develop a promotional plan to increase attendance. "We expected the drop," she said.

Those who do show up seem to favor the new arrangement, however. "There's more room," said Leonor Daltro, a frequent museum visitor who came from La Mirada with her two children, ages 10 and 8, to see the new site for the first time. "I think it's better."

Although most of the exhibits remain the same, at least two--a completely outfitted optometrist's chair and a special exhibition of smells--have been replaced.

One new exhibit encourages children to write letters to City Council members. Another consists of a giant yellow piggy bank-funnel; visitors can make donations to the museum while watching their coins react to the laws of gravity.

Run on a budget of $3,400 a month, Sherlock said, the museum subsists on donations, admission fees of $1 per person, gift shop sales and dues paid by its more than 200 members.

City officials say the museum's presence is consistent with their plan to revive the downtown.

"It's an additional attraction," said David Biggs, downtown development project manager. "One of our goals is to provide entertainment and recreational opportunities in the downtown area, and this fits in."

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