It will be a mix of old favorites and a slate of new exhibits when the Children’s Museum and Theatre of Maine opens at its new location at Thompson’s Point on June 24.
The 30,000-square-foot museum has an expanded theater space and a floor dedicated to sciences, culture and community. The museum previously operated for 30 years at a 19,000-square-foot space on Free Street in downtown Portland.
“There is so much joy in this building and excitement that we look forward to,” Executive Director Julie Butcher Pezzino said. “It has been a traumatic year for everyone. That includes our staff. We’ve worked hard to get here. It has not been easy.”
This spring had always been eyed for the opening, Butcher Pezzino said, but until recently questions remained about how the museum could open and operate during the pandemic.
“We were definitely concerned even a month or two ago,” she said. “It would impact what we would be able to do because we wouldn’t be able to have things out or that certain exhibits wouldn’t able to be offered. Restrictions were lifted, and now it is up to us and our choices how we want to do things.”
The museum will proceed with caution with limited hours and some restrictions, because most of its visitors are under age 12 and not yet eligible for COVID-19 vaccinations. For now, group activities won’t be offered, the theater will present only one-actor shows until at least the fall, and everyone 5 and older will be asked to wear a mask. The building will operate at 40% capacity, with 250 people allowed inside at a time. For the time being, it will be open Thursdays through Saturdays and families will have to reserve tickets in advance.
The new space offers a lot that the museum’s former site on Free Street in downtown Portland couldn’t, said Patricia Erikson, director of marketing and corporate relations, such as a half-acre outdoor play area and a teaching garden. The Children’s Theatre of Maine, the oldest continuously operating youth theater in the country, has been moved from the basement on Free Street to Maddy’s Theater, a state-of-the art, 89-seat theater that will be able to showcase professional shows, as well as youth theater and other events.
The second floor of the building houses the museum’s culture, art and community exhibits and features the Lunder Arts and Culture Gallery. The gallery features an exhibit devoted to Maine author and illustrator Ashley Bryan’s book “The Beautiful Blackbird” and an exhibit about Korean language. The museum’s popular “Our Neighborhood” exhibit has been expanded to include a train station and airport to tie into the nearby Amtrak Downeaster terminal and Portland International Jetport, both of which can be seen from inside the building.
The third floor houses the museum’s science exhibits, relating to physics, simple machines and the power of water, and light and color. There is a new Illuminate exhibt and an expanded aquarium area with seven fresh and saltwater tanks.
The popular periscopic camera obscura is on the roof and will project panoramic views onto an exhibit table on the third floor, just as it did previously at the Free Street location.
“There are things for kids of all ages here,” Erikson said. “This building much more deliberately expands the ages we reach.”
Murals by local artists, including Patrick Corrigan, Kevin Hawkes and Rachel Adams, are displayed throughout the museum.
More than $15 million dollars was raised for the project from over 500 donors, surpassing the museum’s initial $14 million goal at the launch of the campaign in February 2020.
“I’m touched by the donors at all levels who recognized the importance of the project for the community and stretched to make this dream become a reality. The campaign is not just about a building – it is about opportunities for children. At the core of this initiative is the desire to dramatically expand our reach,” said Imagine Campaign Chair Barbee Gilman.
According to the museum, the goal is to draw more than 200,000 visitors a year, nearly double the nearly the number the museum had on Free Street.
Neighboring businesses will get a big boost from the museum as well, according to Chris Thompson, a managing partner of Thompson’s Point. The museum’s opening “marks a very important moment for Thompson’s Point,” he said.
“This amazing cultural attraction will attract large numbers of families from Maine and beyond, which means that the surrounding Thompson’s Point businesses will see a significant increase in traffic, resulting in economic growth and vitality for our tenants and our programming,” he said.
Neighboring businesses include Rwanda Bean, Bissell Brothers Brewery, Stroudwater Distillery, the International Cryptozoology Museum, Color Me Mine, the Thompson Point outdoor concert venue and ice skating rink and soon Rosemont Market and Bakery.
“The creative energy within our Thompson’s Point community feels as though it is at an all time high. Excitement is building around interesting collaborations to grow and enhance the experience of all our visitors. Engagement is bubbling up everywhere you look, and we attribute much of that to the arrival of the museum team,” Thompson said.
The Portland Museum of Art bought the former children’s museum site for $2.1 million in October 2019. No plans are in place yet for how the art museum will use the adjacent building.
“We are still assessing the positive impact 142 Free St. can have at the (museum), for our community, and in the heart of downtown,” said Graeme Kennedy, Portland Museum of Art’s director of strategic communications and public relations.
For more information about the museum or tickets, visit kitetails.org.
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