Olympia’s new Hands On Children’s Museum on East Bay is getting its missing ingredient this weekend: loads and loads of children.
The $18.5 million museum opens to the public Sunday after opening to members Saturday. It’s the culmination of a dream that began 25 years ago, evolved through multiple locations and survived a hard-fought political battle for government funding.
It’s a story of partnership, as several public agencies got involved. But, ultimately, it’s about the children bouncing around a two-story, 28,000-square-foot indoor playground. There are eight galleries, an art studio, more than 150 exhibits and a developing outdoor gallery space that will rival the interior of the museum in size when it fully opens next year.
The new museum is expected to have 212,000 visitors in its first year.
“I feel like a proud parent,” said Edie Harding, one of the founding board members of the museum, dating to 1987.
“What an amazing coming together in the community for just such a worthy cause, which really is early learning for our kids.”
Gary Schneider, another early board member, said the museum is “hands-on” because children get to learn things in an open-ended, rather than directed, fashion.
“It’s not like learning some body of knowledge,” said Schneider, who has been a part of the museum for 20 years. “It’s about learning how to learn.”
Visiting children walk through the big glass doors into an airy museum filled with Northwest wood, past a fabricated cedar tree.
The museum’s centerpiece is its two-story Tides to Trees Climber, which lets the kids scale an interpretive eagle’s nest and then slide back down into an interpretive Puget Sound.
It’s all part of the Puget Sound Gallery. Children can explore a two-story cargo ship and then crawl underneath it to see a replicated underwater world, complete with sea lion, octopus and jellyfish. They can operate a crane that mimics one at the Port of Olympia, and make and float a boat.
Next door, the Good for You gallery replicates the Olympia Farmers Market. Children can pretend to buy food and cook and serve it.
Rounding out the first floor is the Emergency! gallery, where children can pretend in an Olympia police car, a fire engine, an emergency room, Medic One and a 911 dispatch center.
Upstairs, children enter the Our Fabulous Forest gallery through a mock nurse log. There’s a longhouse donated by the Squaxin Island Tribe, home to story-telling and a history of native people, said Genevieve Chan, communications manager.
The architectural centerpiece of the second floor is the rotunda that recalls a water tower; it is home to the Move It! Gallery. There, children can send balls up a tubular maze, controlling their velocity with puffs of air.
The Snug Harbor gallery offers a place for toddlers to play while they watch their older siblings climb on the two-story climber nearby. They will have a smaller climber of their own and an interpretive oyster shell, which has a waterbed-like surface for babies. There are plenty of story books and a nursing area for the smallest visitors.
Art lovers will enjoy the Arts & Parts Studio, where children can create art from new and recycled art supplies, some of which will be displayed in the museum. Rounding out the second floor is the Build It! Gallery, where children can build a “home” of their own.
Throughout the museum are murals showing iconic views of Olympia, including the waterfront and Fourth Avenue. There are rental rooms for birthday parties and other special occasions, and an area for field trips.
The third floor is home to the museum’s administrative offices and about 55 staffers.
Outside, exhibits will take about as much space as they do on the inside. Scheduled to fully open by the time school lets out for the summer, the half-acre will include a “hike and trike” loop, a storytelling fire ring, children’s gardens, a sand-dig and mud-pie pit, a naturalist cabin and driftwood fort construction.
Roll-up doors on the building will allow children to go back and forth.
“In Washington state, we will be the largest children’s museum when the outdoor space opens …” said Patty Belmonte, the museum’s executive director.
FUNDING A DREAM
The grand facility would have been difficult to imagine in 1987, when the museum began as a “museum without walls.” Belmonte said a startup group of parents created a museum that traveled from space to space, including South Sound Center in Lacey.
“It was nowhere,” Schneider said. “It was an idea.”
Harding said, “We would sponsor these one-day events that would take about six months to prepare.”
The museum would pick a theme and children would have hands-on learning activities, she said.
In 1994, the museum found a semi-permanent location in a crammed storefront at 108 Franklin St., now home to Old School Pizzeria.
When Belmonte joined the museum in 1996, there were three employees.
“The day I started, the week I started, I would say, I talked to those employees and I asked them what they felt their greatest need was,” she said. “And the greatest need at that time was to have enough light bulbs to fill every socket.”
One of her first tasks was to look at other children’s museums to evaluate their strengths and weaknesses. The takeaway: the space was too small to serve the community. It wasn’t large enough to serve even a school bus full of children.
At that time, the museum was serving 15,000 visitors per year. “And those visitors told us that they didn’t prefer that space,” she said. “They found it was hard to get to, hard to park and too small. And so that led us immediately to look for new space.”
In 1998, the museum moved to rented space on 11th Avenue next to the Capitol Campus, the former home of another restaurant “with the grease pan still on the stove.”
With an “army of volunteers,” the space was remade into a museum. Attendance jumped to 50,000 in the first year.
“And so we immediately had outgrown the new space that we moved to,” Belmonte said.
Crews knocked out walls and doubled the space in 2001. Visitor numbers doubled, too, to 100,000 per year.
The old museum building still lacked space, so the museum held classes in the United Churches building across the street and in the building next to the museum.
But momentum for building a new museum didn’t begin until it secured revenue from the local Public Facilities District, or PFD, a state authorized area that can use a portion of state sales tax for local projects.
The governments in the local district – Olympia, Tumwater, Lacey and Thurston County – had to agree on how to divide $24.8 million in expected revenues the district would generate. A dispute raged over Olympia’s controversial proposal to use those dollars for a conference center.
After 1½ years, then-Olympia City Council member Doug Mah and Lacey Deputy Mayor Nancy Peterson, who had become acquainted serving on the LOTT board, struck a compromise in 2006: $7 million for the children’s museum and $17.8 million for a Regional Athletic Complex in Lacey. The museum rose to the top of the list of projects vying for the money because of public support, Mah said.
“I just think it’s incredible,” he said. “The museum is one of these things that is unmatched in Washington and Puget Sound and probably on the West Coast.”
But, even after being approved for PFD funding, the museum wasn’t a done deal. A location had to be found, and more funds had to be raised.
Olympia leaders decided to throw in an extra $1 million, and they struck a deal to buy a piece of property from the Port of Olympia for $2.28 million and build the museum facility. It would lease the new building to the nonprofit museum organization for $1 per year.
In turn, the museum pledged to raise the rest of the $18.5 million and finish the inside of the building.
The port knocked down old warehouses, cleaned up more than a dozen acres and built new city streets to open up the area to development.
The LOTT Clean Water Alliance also became an integral part of the museum partnership. It built a new headquarters a block away that included the WET educational center, another stop for field-trip groups headed to the museum. LOTT also is using its excess methane gas to head and cool the new museum.
LOTT also was part of building a $3.4 million plaza in front of the museum that the public can use for free. The plaza, about an acre, is jointly funded by LOTT and the city on land the Port of Olympia sold to LOTT for $1. The port also contributed $30,000 for interpretive elements.
The museum will now have a $1.9 million annual budget, Belmonte said.
“For us, it’s important to know that we’re not finished yet and that we have, through the generosity of our community, we’ve been able to get this far,” Belmonte said.