Aiming to save, Children’s Museum goes it alone: In-house construction crew builds exhibits from scratch

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A sign on the basement wall reads “Construction Zone.” Nearby on the router table, window frames are taking shape along with decorative pieces that will adorn the façade of a World War IIera brownstone.

Behind a red plywood wall a few floors up, hammers knock and saws shrill as workers erect a 13,500-square-foot homage to three children who changed the world.

It’s just another day at the office for the production crew at The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis.

For months, the nine-person production department staff has been working on the museum’s Power of Children exhibit, set to debut Nov. 10. The $6 million exhibit-sharing the stories of Anne Frank, Ruby Bridges and Ryan White-replaces the Mysteries in History exhibit, which closed in November.

It’s a tall order, but the Children’s Museum has come to expect no less from its in-house construction crew. For decades, the museum has relied on its own staff to do everything from maintaining the facility to building exhibits.

“There’s never a day when there’s nothing to do,” said Jim Hoover, director of exhibit production.

Museum CEO Jeff Patchen said doing everything in-house saves the museum as much as 50 percent on construction costs. It also makes coordination among departments easier.

Still, even other museums that have some kind of exhibit-building capacity often aren’t equipped to do as much as the Children’s Museum.

“There are few museums of any type that have the full design-develop-fabricate-install capability as we do,” said Patchen, 53. “There are just one or two children’s museums that design and build, and a very small percentage of science centers and natural history museums.”

Worth the investment?

In central Indiana, several museums have some form of production department, said Tiffany Hatfield, coordinator of the Indianapolis-based The Association of Indiana Museums. Conner Prairie is among them.

The Hamilton County living-history museum can handle small projects in-house, but it hires a construction firm to build larger structures, said President Ellen Rosenthal.

Although critics may question the investment in an in-house production department, Rosenthal said museums have to consider the long-term returns.

“I can tell you when you work with an exhibit firm, it’s expensive and you pay a premium to special-order things,” Rosenthal said. “You’d have to sit down and consider … if it’s better to have a staff member with benefits and a salary, or is it cheaper to have an outside firm do it?”

Patchen said his production, design and development departments do so much work-creating 10 temporary, traveling and permanent exhibits in 2006 alone-the Children’s Museum could not afford to pay someone else to do it all.

Many larger museums can afford to have a full design capacity department, but the trend in the past 15 years has been to outsource, said Elizabeth Kryder-Reid, director of the museum studies program at IUPUI. The problem is, outsourcing hinders communication, she said.

“The Children’s Museum has been one of the most successful to develop exhibits not only for the building, but also for traveling exhibits,” she said. “Not many museums have figured out how to do it and make it economically beneficial.” Getting it right

Hoover and his employees work from a 17,000-square-foot facility in the museum’s basement. They have a paint shop, carpentry shop, electric shop and storage area-and the materials necessary to create almost anything.

The paint shop is filled with equipment and works in process. During a recent visit, a carousel horse was getting touched up before being saddled again, and primer-covered pieces for the Power of Children exhibit rested on three tables. A few steps away down a ramp, the carpentry area has hundreds of pieces of wood and tools lying on the tables and in racks.

Still, the production crew knows its limitations. Contractors were brought in to erect the three Power of Children structures-the Amsterdam room where Anne Frank hid during World War II, the New Orleans schoolhouse where first-grader Ruby Bridges bridged a racial divide in 1960, and the Hoosier home where teen AIDS patient Ryan White fought for his right to attend school in 1984.

The production crew has still had plenty to do, though. Hours can be spent working on a single exhibit piece, since it is their job to make items look authentic.

Take, for example, a desk for the Anne Frank portion of the Power of Children exhibit. Working from a photo of the original desk, staff spent about 50 hours carving the wooden piece and adding detailed design elements-and it still has to be “aged.”

The museum took the time to replicate the desk to maintain the connection to Anne’s story, said Hatfield of the museum association.

“Museums work hard to protect and make sure a story is relevant, accurate and provokes something that needs to be provoked in society,” she said. “If there’s a reproduction or object that’s created, it’s an extension of the experience a visitor could have about what the subject matter is. It’s an extension of the story of the Holocaust and you wouldn’t get that with a retailer.”

When possible, the museum uses salvaged materials. Power of Children will use an old Indianapolis school’s desks and doors to re-create the New Orleans school that Bridges integrated.

The Children’s Museum is able to connect with the community by using School 54 artifacts, Hatfield said.

“The museum does more than just serve the community, but there are pieces of the community in it,” she said. “By bringing a local attachment to people who are famous nationally and internationally, you can connect to the story locally, nationally or internationally.”

Skill and vision

To get the job done, the museum needs talented craftsmen with a vision.

“You really have to make sure they have the skill sets that we need, and sometimes we’re asking for a lot,” Hoover said. “You can hire painters, but for a person to never see a product before, look at it and go, ‘OK, I need to make that look like limestone’ and then get to work-that’s where the talent comes in right there.”

Hoover worked as a project manager in the aerospace industry; his crew has varied experience, building everything from theater sets to cabinets. Longtime employees developed their skills at the museum, and some of the younger staff members bring a different perspective.

“When you combine that together, you have the old carpenter who knows how to do it with his eyes closed and you have the new guys who are solidly skilled coming out of school with new technology, which makes it a nice mix,” said Hoover, 42.

Having an in-house production department helps the museum better coordinate everything from the exhibit development stage on, Patchen said. When an exhibit is being designed, the production department gets involved by giving input on what materials are most cost-effective and would work well in certain situations.

“People have a concept in mind and we want to create it to that level of authenticity,” Hoover said. “[My favorite exhibit] is Power of Children. The subject matter is so deep and the size is so large, that every day I’m surprised [by] how good it looks.”

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