A makeover for the Children’s Museum

Chantal Amyot is the director of Exhibitions and Visitor Experience at the Museum of History. She is leading the renewal of the Children's Museum. Photo: Peter Robb

After 30 years and literally millions of visits by kids and families, the Children’s Museum inside the Canadian Museum of History is about to get a complete makeover.

The process of renewal is underway, but patrons will notice it for real next fall when the space is closed for the actual renovation. It won’t open again until December 2021.

Chantal Amyot, director of Exhibitions and Visitor Experience, is leading the renewal project for the museum. She told ARTSFILE in an interview that the museum decided about a year and a half ago that the children’s space needed an upgrade.

“We looked at the offering that we had, and considered the fact that it’s now 30 years old. We also considered that society and how we raise children has changed completely since 1989. We thought it was about time that we looked at the space.”

Inside the current Children’s Museum. Courtesy Canadian Museum of History.

The footprint of the space will be the same. It’s hard to tamper with Douglas Cardinal’s structure. But, Amyot said, otherwise will be a brand new experience.

“We want to be in line with what parents need today; in line with 21st century skills.”

Fundamentally that means the renewed space will offer more opportunity for free play. Right now the child’s experience is very directed inside the Children’s Museum. Essentially is is set up as an organized tour around the world with stops along the way to check out a decorated Pakistani bus, a three-wheeled auto rickshaw from Thailand, a Bedouin tent and homes from India, Indonesia and Mexico.

Free play in this context means giving a child the opportunity to make all the decisions on what he or she wants to do in the space.

“Some people love directed activities, so we’re not going to completely remove that. But we want to offer more opportunities to let kids decide what want to do and how.”

It seems that every significant change like this in one of Canada’s national museums and arts facilities involves a lot of interactions with the public to ensure acceptance. This project is no different. For example:

“We have done a lot of surveys and one of the questions we asked parents was ‘What about technology.’ The question gave us the most passionate responses. People said no technology. ‘We have had enough.’ People don’t want screens,” Amyot said.

You can’t avoid digital completely, but the museum will use it in a different way, she said.

“Perhaps there will be some experiences that will be fed by technology but the user won’t necessarily realize it. It really has to be subtle and integrated.”

Another way the museum has gathered information on current thinking about children’s museums was a major symposium held before Christmas featuring international experts about museology and children.

“We are looking to experts who have done new projects for kids. We are looking at people who are thinking about the definition of family today. Occupational therapists and experts on play in general. We have a hint of where to go. This was an opportunity to hear from experts.

“We have also been to quite a few children’s museums or offerings for children where we can see trends. We see that a lot of people are wanting to renew themselves.”

This is where the whole idea of free play comes in. It is part of the massive changes sweeping across children’s museums everywhere.

In free play, the children activate the space. For example a museum in Paris has an exhibit that allows each child to build their own cabin or treehouse. The results are original to each child.

Along with free play are the buzz words of today: accessibility and inclusivity.

“We strive to be better and better on these things. That’s going to show way more than we have done before.”

When the Children’s Museum opened it was considered a cutting edge facility. In 1989, the organizers were focussing on child development with very deliberate activities done in the space.

“They were totally on trend then.”

One group of people weren’t so well served in the old model. Parents, Amyot said, could get bored in the museum and they didn’t have their own spaces

“If you are sitting on a little chair it can get uncomfortable. You don’t have the proper site lines. If you needed to breast feed an infant, she said, “it’s kind of hard. We have to address that. We have opportunity to do that with makeover.”

Right now the museum is working with designers, listening to expert advice and also consulting an advisory committee made up a former school principal, an occupational therapist, a senior official with the Vanier Institute of the Family and Senator Landon Pearson. They look at the project from a different perspective.

“For us it is important to have those outside observers, those checkpoints who are kid specialists but not museum specialists,” Amyot said.

In the consultations, the museum has done several surveys with staff, the general public, children. There are about 1,000 people who agreed to be contacted on an on-going basis.

“It’s a treasured place. It’s a jewel of the museum. We get between 400,000 and 450,000 visits a year in that space.

“We need to renew it. We have had people say that they have are not going anymore because they’ve done all they can in the space. These people say ‘Change it, please’.”

After the space has been recreated, some of the old pieces might move back in, she says, but what will return is definitely TBD. Some artifacts will find other homes inside the wider Museum of History.

The designer of the project is Toboggan Design, a Montreal firm that specializes in spaces for children. One of the senior designers at the firm, Laurent Carrier, was an assistant designer on the original space, Amyot said. Most recently, Amyot said, Toboggan were involved in the creation of the Manitoba Children’s Museum.

Patrons can expect to see a preliminary design for the new space in the spring.

While the space is closed the Museum of History will set aside about 8,000 square feet of space for temporary exhibitions. As well, they will add a children’s component to larger exhibitions including a major Egyptian exhibition coming to the museum this spring.

The budget for the renovation is $15 million, which includes salaries, architecture and design and construction.

The space will be enclosed to minimize impacts on the rest of the open concept museum, but some places will close for short time while work proceeds.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.