They see it like this: Inside an old powerhouse that looks like a castle, a sculpture inspired by the three rivers of the Bronx hangs from the ceiling in the lobby. Paintings created by Bronx artists adorn every wall. Children run from exhibit to exhibit, pushing buttons and pulling on handles, playing with animal costumes, and viewing specimens through a magnifying glass. In one of several spaces, museum educators give classes on native animals and their environment.
This is the vision for the Bronx Children’s Museum, and for 11 years, organizers have kept this idea alive while running its programs and exhibits “without walls” in the borough’s schools, shelters, libraries and parks. But the museum has finally found a permanent home – and walls — in a city-owned former powerhouse located on parkland just steps away from Yankee Stadium. The 13,000-square-foot space, which the museum has a license to occupy, is currently in the pre-construction phase and is scheduled to open its doors to the borough’s children in 2018.
“From the millisecond that the child walks in, they’ll feel like they are transformed to a different place and they’ll realize that it’s a place that’s made for them,” said Carla Precht, the museum’s founding executive director. “We want that child, whatever age they are when they’re walking into our space, to feel like they’re the center of the universe.”
The museum will occupy the lobby and the entire second floor of the building. In a modern style that will feature glass balconies, curved seating areas, and colored cork and tile floors, the museum will be divided into sections for separate exhibits. Tall, wide windows and beamed, high ceilings will add to the space’s open feel.
The children’s museum, which up until now has used a repurposed school bus as a mobile learning environment to engage children and adults in art and science, has also held temporary exhibits, ongoing afterschool programs and summer programming at community-based organizations around the borough. The aim for the brick-and-mortar museum is to serve 75,000 children each year and focus on themes in science and art, such as “Water Connects Us All.”
Current programs, such as “Dream Big,” a summer arts enrichment program that includes two afterschool programs, aim to inspire children to dream big, work hard and follow their passions, according to the organization’s website. And though the museum will feature a permanent water exhibit, Precht said organizers would also constantly come up with new ways to present information to children, changing programs as needed.
With the notion that “the museum really is the Bronx,” Precht said organizers would use Mill Pond Park as an expansion of the museum’s walls for environmental programs, taking advantage of the fact that the powerhouse is located right on the Harlem River. Everything inside the space would also be tied to the Bronx and would teach children the significance of historic places, like the High Bridge and the Bronx River.
According to Paul Lipson, the co-founder of The Point and now president of Barretto Bay Strategies and a trustee of the museum, the trick is to focus on things that are familiar to children, but that add a new context.
“People may live near the Bronx River, but never understand that it’s the only fresh water river in New York City,” Lipson said. “There may be kids who have lived their whole lives on the Harlem River, but have no idea what the history of the High Bridge is across the Harlem River.”
The museum was supposed to be open for business this year, but had to delay its grand opening more than once due to delays with the city, Precht said. But bids come in for the project on Nov. 20, and construction is expected to take up to 18 months.
The museum has secured $7.9 million in New York City funding and $4 million from New York State, and has also raised $2.6 million privately out of $3.5 million for exhibits. Once the museum opens, Precht said it will have a suggested admission fee, and while people of all ages are welcome, the museum is intended to be a place for children from infancy to age 9. Spaces like the “early learner area” will be geared toward parents with children 0 to 2 years old as well as parents-to-be by connecting them with resources in the Bronx.
“The message really is that you’re here and your child is here just to connect, just to be in the moment together,” Precht said.
To date, Precht said, the operations budget is estimated at a little over $900,000 a year once the museum opens for business. And while they are still planning, Precht estimates the museum will have a full-time staff of six to eight people and a part-time staff of approximately 12 people. Because they are a museum “with and without walls,” a group that can run programs around the borough will also be needed, Precht said.
“A museum is a place where you can become storytellers, you can become scientists,” said Hidaliz Angulo, a teaching associate at the Hunts Point Alliance for Children who works closely with children up to 5 years old. “Our students will discover the joy of learning just by exploring all the museum has to offer.”
According to board member Richard Stein, in order to officially open its doors in 2018, there are a number of things the museum must check off, including renovating the lobby, installing an elevator, and creating and installing the museum’s exhibits. But Stein said the project is moving along a little quicker this time around. The architectural firm working on the museum is O’Neill McVoy Architects.
“It’s going to be a place, I hope, that families will enjoy going to over and over again and always discover something new and different,” Stein said. “Something entertaining, something educational, and something to instill pride in where we come from and where we’re going as a borough.”