A Children’s Museum Grows : Art Confronting Real Life Is the Goal of San Diego Facility’s Curators


When artists and executives at the Children’s Museum of San Diego talk about going interactive, it doesn’t necessarily mean plugged in.

Since the reopening of the Children’s Museum/Museo de los Ninos one year ago in the heart of downtown San Diego, after a decade in La Jolla, the new way of thinking at the museum involves art confronting the real world, in addition to the virtual world.

“By heading where we are heading, we hope to go beyond interactive,” said executive director Robert Sain. “There’s plenty of room for a learning environment in this museum. What we seek are lessons in real living.”

With trolleys that stop just a few feet from the front door taking riders from a nearby Amtrak connection with Los Angeles and Orange counties, Sain says he wants the Children’s Museum/Museo de los Ninos to become a rallying place for ideas about Southern California children and art.


“The idea of artists as problem solvers isn’t that new, but it is a powerful tool when working with children,” Sain said. “The community has been very supportive of these ideas, and the possibilities for the future are endless. We’re going to involve children as much as possible in creating new ideas. We want their opinions. More often than not, they are the best source for constructive change.”

The Children’s Museum opened in 1984 in a 5,000-square-foot space at La Jolla Village Square shopping center and enjoyed a solid reputation there for a decade, though the opportunities for growth--both spatial and artistic--had their limitations.

When the shopping center was scheduled for demolition two years ago, the museum lost its space and sat in limbo while a new location was sought. San Diego’s Centre City Development Corp. stepped in and offered the museum an architecturally sound but initially questionable locale downtown until it could relocate to Balboa Park in 1996.

The downtown site, in an old electronics warehouse at the corner of Island and Front streets, across from the San Diego Convention Center, developed its own charm after the museum reopened Oct. 31, 1993, officially adding Museo de los Ninos to its name.


“We didn’t know at first what we had with this space,” Sain said of the 30,000-square-foot area. “But the more we worked with it, the more we realized its amazing potential.”

The museum staff, having completed an overhaul of the building and its immediate surrounding property, decided the temporary home had to be made permanent. The fit was perfect. The bright, open, sunlight-streamed room is a hit, and the building recently won a coveted Orchid award in San Diego’s annual design competition.

Plans for a move to Balboa Park have been scrapped, and the museum staff now envisions an ambitious “children’s row” for the street, with a library, education center, wellness center, broadcast facilities and a museum school all part of the package.

Recent exhibits at the Children’s Museum and those planned for the future involve tangible ways of better understanding real-life situations. In “The Box Show,” an exhibit that continues until spring, artists from Southern California and Tijuana have devised nine experimental box environments promoting the idea of children appreciating art while gaining a greater understanding of the world.


“The Box Show” addresses the museum’s redefined goal of bringing Latino and Anglo traditions closer together, becoming a by-product of the city’s ever-changing demographic.

“This marriage of two cultures is something children recognize already,” Sain said. “It’s a vital part of their future. We began to understand this when we decided to keep this site permanently. This is the demographic of our patrons and our city and truly the start of a new era.”

“The Box Show” includes several box-shaped exhibits that allow children to explore hidden spaces while participating in artistic and learning activities. Those include a room where distinct sounds collide, offering an aural challenge of perception for children; a living flora and fauna box, complete with howling coyotes; an artist’s design of the making of a Snickers candy bar, and a poetry and art box.

Nearby are a popular mini-city and an old truck that children are allowed to splatter with colorful paints. Ongoing exhibits include the improvisational theater area and a crawl space for children younger than 3 1/2.


One of the most ambitious aspects of “The Box Show” is still at least a month away from opening and will become a permanent part of the museum. San Diego artist Ernest Silva is finishing work on Cora’s Rain House, a giant tin dwelling featuring a rain forest with recycling water that will sit inside the Children’s Museum/Museo de los Ninos.

The house is designed to draw children to come inside and talk about or record their thoughts and emotions on nearly any subject. Children will have a chance to write these feelings, use video equipment to record them, or draw and discuss.

“The idea is to get children to express their feelings in a comfortable atmosphere,” Silva said. “It’s connected to the nature of the museum as a work space and a laboratory. The children will be invited to do projects, and tell stories and write poems.”

A smaller version of Cora’s Rain House is already finished and in use at Casa de Cultural in Tijuana, which often shares exhibits and ideas with the museum. The project is named after Silva’s late wife Cora, who died of breast cancer earlier this year.


“It was inspired by an idea she had,” said Silva, 45. “Cora wanted an artistic space where children could take magical journeys into themselves. She saw the need for children to talk about their own families and also how children could learn about themselves by studying families in other cultures.”

Silva says he took Cora’s basic vision, then expanded it after her death.

“One of the things I realized after my wife died was how her ability to tell stories helped her cope with her illness,” Silva said. “It was a way for her to express anger and frustration and refocus her abilities. I saw that opportunity in this rain house, a perfect place for children and a respectful tribute to Cora.”

Cora’s Rain House will fit the overall picture of the museum as a place to work out real-life situations.


The Children’s Museum/Museo de los Ninos’ other plans include exhibits that will deal with the issue of children and violence, and also ones of general interest about careers and how virtually any career can be looked at as an artistic enterprise.

“There is a great sense of vision at the museum,” Silva said. “The agenda is dealing with different aspects of living.”

* Children’s Museum of San Diego/Museo de los Ninos, 200. W. Island Ave., San Diego. Open 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m., Tuesday-Saturday. Admission is $4; $2 for senior citizens 65 and older. No admission charged for children under 2. Information: (619) 233-KIDS.