Michael Gilmore, the new executive director of Lexington's Explorium, has an odd problem: How do you expand the customer base of a museum where the young patrons are given to squealing over just how far you can stretch bubble soap?
This is not the sort of challenge Gilmore had at his last job, at Louisville's highly regarded Frazier International History Museum.
The Explorium started out as the Lexington Children's Museum in 1990 and changed its named to Explorium of Lexington in 2005. It has never been a big money-maker, but then, nobody has asked it to be: The museum has encouraged generations of kids to gawk at fake dinosaurs and walk on a fake moon and sit in a cockpit and dip their little fingers into water and dirt and bubbles. It's the kind of community investment that, like creative playgrounds and swimming pools, builds thoughtful citizens in a way that can't be measured on a CATS test.
The stars of the children's-museum world — the big boys in cities like Pittsburgh and Indianapolis — have the elaborate exhibits that draw families from other regions, other states. But they also have something else:
”They have integrated their mission to parallel the needs of the community,“ Gilmore says.
That sounds a little high-toned for a museum where the kidlets splash their hands through a fake Kentucky River. But Gilmore is after bigger game than just faux dinosaur bones: He wants to bring more people into the museum, be they children or adults.
”Somebody will be in the building every night,“ he pledges. ”We won't be 10 to 5.“
Gilmore wants a place for children to display their art. And he wants to take more museum programs on the road — a feature he figures will become more popular if gas prices continue to surge.
The children's-museum business is tricky. Big exhibits have to be booked years in advance. But when you get an exhibit that resonates with families, it's a reputation-maker. Gilmore cites the popular Dragons exhibit at the Frazier museum last year. Taking a page from the mythical beasts made popular by the Harry Potter and Chronicles of Narnia series, the exhibit asked questions: How do you tell the difference between a good dragon and a bad dragon? What do dragons like to eat? What does dragon skin feel like? Do dragons fall in love? Do dragons have to brush their teeth?
True, you won't see such questions on an SAT, but it's the creative learning process that counts.
Says Gilmore: ”Learning happens when it's fun.“