Children’s museum stays true to its roots as it reaches for tomorrow

<p>File Photo</p>
File Photo

Just for a fleeting second or two, my breath caught.

There they were, a dozen or so preschoolers, gathered around a wondrous network of huge tubes full of flowing water — splashing in it, seeing how it works, giggling with the glee in discovery that carries a ring of pure joy. The colorful rubberized smocks kept them dry, sort of, as their parents stood nearby.

It feels like just a month or two ago that I was one of those moms, and my little kids were wearing those smocks, taking their places among those explorers of all things watery. That can’t be, of course, given that the first of my four, born over a span of just less than a decade, will turn 30 next month.

The DuPage Children’s Museum has come a long way in the 27 years since a handful of kid-appealing exhibits were erected in the first of its two temporary homes, a decade before the facility settled into its forever home on Washington Street in downtown Naperville. But in the ways that matter, it really hasn’t changed a bit.

“One of the things that’s fascinating is that a museum is really an extension of your community,” said Sarah Orleans, who took over as president and CEO three months ago, after longtime museum leader Sue Broad retired.

Orleans’ new position allows her to have a hand in determining a fresh path for the museum at a time driven by technologies nobody had even dreamed of when Dorothy Carpenter and Louise Beem set out nearly three decades ago to create a place in DuPage County where kids could go to investigate, explore and learn — on their own terms.

“I think the museum is at a tipping point of evolution: What do new parents really want, and how are we going to meet that with technology?” Orleans said. “I’m excited to have been in the profession long enough to have arrived at this place, where we are making these decisions.”

Enter the Next Gen board, an adjunct to the museum’s board of directors. About three dozen strong at the moment, it’s made up of young parents, many of them newly moved to town, who are well-positioned to help set the facility’s course.

Orleans said while the socialization aspect helps the parents become better acquainted with their new hometown, joining the board also gives them a chance to serve the community. The board has received its first assignment from the museum’s board of directors: hold an event that will raise at least $25,000.

Naperville’s Dolly McCarthy and her five kids, no strangers to the museum’s magic, were among its regulars in years past. She said she’s humbled to have been named honorary chair of next weekend’s inaugural Next Gen fund raiser, being called Back for the Future.

“This is a really fun night out at the museum,” McCarthy said. “It’s kind of a retro theme, to raise money for future generations.”

McCarthy has sat in on meetings of the Next Gen board since it took shape in October, and finds it gratifying to see the museum’s newest support network.

“They’re young, they’re energetic, they’ve got a lot of great ideas — and they just make things happen,” she said.

They’ll be making a big thing happen next weekend. The event, to be held at the museum, will have an ’80s focus, complete with a lower-level dance venue that will be named Culture Club for the evening. Raffles, auctions and “Double Dare Adult Challenge” stations scattered throughout the museum are also in the plans. Nintendo and Sega will have a presence as well, in an arcade set up to help party goers show they’ve still got it.

“We’re trying to make it as fun as we can,” said Eric Pfanenstiel, a young dad and Next Gen board member who’s also part of the committee planning the event.

As Dr. Suess famously said, these things are fun, and fun is good. Learning is fun. And good.

Orleans thinks there are good reasons the museum landed in Naperville.

“This is a community that cares about its children. It has a wonderful library system. It has wonderful schools,” she said. “Why shouldn’t we have one of the best children’s museums in the country?”

The Back for the Future event is set for 8 to 11 p.m. June 20 at the DuPage Children’s Museum, 301 N. Washington St., Naperville. Tickets cost $75 each and can be purchased at dupagechildrens.org.

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