It’s the only place in the state where a kid can go from piloting an iconic yellow submarine to launching their own flying contraption to making music by pounding on shapes on a wall all in one afternoon. It’s a big year for The Children’s Museum of NH as it celebrates not only its 35th anniversary of providing exhibits but also the 10th anniversary of relocating from Portsmouth to Dover.
“We have generations of families visiting the museum and reliving their experiences from when they were children,” says Jane Bard, the museum’s president. “We are a safe haven for children and families. In this increasingly digital age, we are here to shout to the rooftops the importance of hands-on learning and connectedness to family and community.”
Originally called the Children’s Museum of Portsmouth, the museum opened at the old South Meeting House in Portsmouth in 1983, and welcomed 27,000 visitors during its first year. After 20 years, it was apparent it was outgrowing its space. Dover had the space right in its downtown, so The Children’s Museum undertook a $3.2 million capital campaign to renovate the new location, create new exhibits and rebrand itself as the Children’s Museum of NH.
In July 2008, the museum officially opened its doors to two-floors of interactive exhibits geared toward children from babies to middle school. In 2017, the museum served nearly 93,000 visitors from 194 NH communities, all the New England states as well as 42 states, two U.S. territories and eight countries.
About 60 percent of visitors are from NH and 24 percent are from Maine and Massachusetts, Bard says. And the museum now boasts more than 3,000 members.
“The move to Dover put us in the geographical center [of the region]. We’ve seen visitors grow from the Lakes Region, the White Mountains area, as well as the Seacoast, but still draw a large population from Maine and Massachusetts,” says Bard.
The move has been beneficial for the city as well. Brian Gottlob, an economist and principal of PolEcon Research, estimates the museum brings between $1.8 and $2.3 million in expenditures to the local economy, excluding ticket sales and other expenditures at the museum.
While about 60 percent of the museum’s budget is derived from earned income—admission sales and store sales—40 percent is dependent on donations, which are vital as 29 percent of visitors—just under 27,000 people—require free or reduced admission. “It’s important that every child have access to the work we do,” Bard says.
Staying true to its mission to serve children statewide, the museum has a traveling library during the summer that has gone as far as Gorham and Bath and “all the borders of the state,” Bard says.
For its 35th anniversary, the museum is rolling out new exhibits. The One World exhibit, which allows kids to explore cultures from around the world, is being updated this fall to include a world market with spices, clothing, masks and musical instruments from Indonesia, India, and Mexico, as those cultures are part of NH’s communities.
Over the next five years, the museum will be making other investments to expand its offerings. It is developing an outdoor play patio to provide “a space for messy play with bubbles, water, and paint as well as sensory exploration and a picnic area,” according to museum officials. The museum is also installing technology into an existing classroom so it can be converted into exhibit space with interactive light, color and shadow activities when it’s not being used for school programs.
“These hands on tactile sensory experiences make childhood magical,” Bard says. The museum is paying for the projects with $100,000 in tax credits from the NH Community Development Finance Authority, as well as grants and private donations.
Among the special events for the 35th anniversary was a Family Fun Day, held on Sept. 22, to thank the community for its support. In addition, 35 local artists contributed pieces to the museum for the anniversary which were on display until Sept. 30, and then were raffled off for a fundraiser.
“We’re always enhancing our exhibits and connecting with community organizations,” Bard says. “Our vision is to create and inspire the next generation of creative and innovative thinkers.” For more information, visit childrens-museum.org.