Change for Children's : Museum Focuses on Challenging Future During Disruptive Times


These are emotional times for several women who helped found the San Diego Children's Museum in 1983, and for Robert L. Sain, the museum's new executive director.

Last Wednesday, the women attended the funeral of Dorothy Shapiro, one of six original founders and a driving force behind many of the institution's essential philosophies.

The next day, in a wide-ranging discussion that began in the museum's offices in La Jolla Village Square and continued during a stroll through the museum a few doors down, the founders fondly recalled Shapiro's contributions. Then, with Sain, they dreamed aloud about the museum's wide-open future, even as they prepared to close their La Jolla space for good Sunday. The museum will reopen in Balboa Park's rebuilt House of Charm in 1996; however, a deal for temporary free space in one of three sites near the Gaslamp Quarter downtown is in negotiation, and the museum plans to reopen in the spring.

"Like one of our volunteers said, like colleges have commencement, this is the end of an important time here and the beginning of a more important time," said Sain, 45, who moved to San Diego last month from Chicago, where he was director of the Chicago Museum School, a collaborative educational planning project that brought together the city's museums and public schools. "It's really important people understand that in no way is the museum closing. We're gearing up for a whole new level of community engagement."

The museum must move from La Jolla because La Jolla Village Square is about to undergo a major make-over that will drastically alter its tenant mix.

"Dorothy put the face of the museum together," said Sandra Arkin, president of the museum's board. "She constantly refined and created a vision of what it should be, so when she died a part of the vision died with her. We have taken that vision to heart."

That vision began in 1981, when the museum was organized by six founding women, and was opened two years later in La Jolla Village Square. It has steadily evolved, with new exhibits replacing older ones. But some of the originals remain.

Bea Thurber, director of exhibitions, stopped to point out one of them, a section on human health including a model of a torso with organs that can be removed and put back in, like parts of a three-dimensional puzzle.

"They've taken it apart so many times it doesn't go back together anymore," said Thurber, waving at heart, liver, kidneys and other vitals scattered on a table.

"Dorothy's biggest high was the art studio," Thurber added a few minutes later, as she showed off the space where thousands of children have painted part of an ongoing community mural, or worked on countless spontaneous art projects over the years.

"Her biggest love was letting children explore with all their senses."

Thurber, a former reading teacher, was responsible for one of the museum's more recent exhibits. Opened in 1989, the Creative Journey Maze lets kids find their way through panels of an illustrated book that tower over their heads.

The exhibit's design is a sign of the times, of the way museums compete with other media and entertainments for a child's attention. Thurber sees the maze as a way of making reading fun, in the same way that television and computers can make learning fun, but with more intensive interaction.

Along with fond memories of Shapiro and pride in past accomplishments, Sain and the museum's founders feel fresh energy flowing when they speak of the museum's future.

Before the Chicago job, Sain was director of the Kohl Children's Museum in Wilmette, Ill. His career also includes five years at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, where he was director of development during the campaign that built the Temporary Contemporary downtown.

More than 80 candidates applied for the job in San Diego, and Sain was the museum's first choice.

"The reason we hired him is that we were looking for somebody who could accept the challenges that are facing us, with the temporary location, the House of Charm--with a lot of skill and vision," Arkin explained. "We also needed someone who was a skilled fund-raiser. Bob fit all our criteria perfectly."

And San Diego fit Sain's criteria, too.

"Why I took this job--the big picture ingredients are absolutely fascinating," Sain said, marveling at the chance to reopen, eventually, in the House of Charm. He is excited about the "campus-like" Balboa Park setting, and the opportunity to develop collaborative programs with other museums in the park.

The first example will be a joint effort with the Museum of San Diego History on "Remember the Children," an exhibit on young Holocaust victims scheduled to open in June.

Sain emphasized the Children's Museum's continued commitment to multiculturalism, to serving children from all socioeconomic groups.

Already, its Moneyworks exhibits, with accompanying teaching materials in both Spanish and English, travel to local public schools to explain basic principles of economics. And the museum gives free memberships to underprivileged families, including a group of migrant workers living in a camp in Carmel Valley.

"For many of those kids, this was their first chance to do an art project, and some of them were 11 years old," Thurber said. "There was a beautiful girl who wants to be a doctor. She spent the whole time in the health center, and she left more determined than ever."

The museum also budgets about $10,000 a year toward a scholarship fund to pay for underprivileged children to visit the museum.

With California's emerging multicultural identity, the rise of new technologies including computers and the changing shape of American families, the museum has some complex challenges ahead.

"A children's museum has to be responsive to change," Sain said. He sees the museum's interim space downtown--which will probably be slightly larger than the 9,000-square-foot La Jolla exhibition space--as a sort of lab. He wants to test new exhibit ideas that may eventually be a part of a permanent Balboa Park museum.

"It'll be more provocative, more like an artist's studio than a fancy museum," he said. "We have to clearly define what we're going to do."

When it comes to types of exhibits, health care is an ongoing given, Sain and his museum associates agree. The museum also hopes to keep its hands-on children's theater, and will move part of the existing La Jolla theater set to its new space.

But Sain hopes to generate many new ideas from top creative types, which could result in some progressive exhibits.

"One of the things that's really important is the notion of collaboration," Sain said. For example, educators, psychologists and physicians are among those who could help create a new health-oriented display. Sain also hopes to get suggestions from artists, architects, designers and other creative types on future exhibits.

Downtown, or near downtown, in Balboa Park, is the museum's ideal location, according to Sain and museum officials.

From that geographic center, the museum will serve a culturally diverse cross section of San Diego's young population, who will be able to reach the museum by car, bus, San Diego Trolley, bicycle or even foot.

Sain predicts the museum will serve 100,000 visitors a year in a temporary downtown location, and 350,000 its first year in Balboa Park, where it will have 41,000 square feet of space. It serves about 90,000 a year in La Jolla.

His optimistic estimates of demand are backed by the national boom in children's museums. In 1983, there were about 100 of them, now there are more than 400, according to Arkin.

Still, the museum has some formidable fund-raising to do before it can reopen downtown, and move, eventually, to Balboa Park.

The initial cost of fitting out the downtown space--even if it is rent-free, as anticipated--is estimated at $1 million, and the capital campaign for the Balboa Park museum is pegged at $6 million.

The museum has a $100,000 commitment from a private source toward an interim downtown space. Several charitable foundations have committed money for the Balboa Park project, including a $100,000 grant from the Weingart Foundation in Los Angeles.

Some of San Diego's top corporate and individual charitable donors have been stung by the recession, but Sain is not deterred.

"I don't see us as just one more nonprofit mouth to feed," he said. "We can collaborate with any area." He named medicine, business, education, urban planning, architecture, design and the sciences as fields that might have a vested interest in future museum projects.

"I see the children's museum, particularly with the move downtown, as becoming much more a part of the urban fabric, much more of a resource for kids and families and schools and other organizations. If you begin thinking about the future, about children, about a continuum, and the importance of children, these are the leaders and employees of tomorrow. What the children's museum is about is much more than a symbol of the city. It can demonstrate the city's commitment to its children."

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