Modesto needs a kids museum, these parents say. So they’re working to create one

The couples who’ve formed the founding board of the Modesto Children’s Museum have taken their children around the state and nation to seek information and inspiration from other such sites.
The couples who’ve formed the founding board of the Modesto Children’s Museum have taken their children around the state and nation to seek information and inspiration from other such sites.

Three couples with young children want to add to the list of things Modestans don’t have to leave town to experience. They’ve formed the founding board of the Modesto Children’s Museum and launched an ambitious effort that, if all goes well, could see a site open sometime in 2022.

The couples — each with two children under 5 — are Chelsea and Ryan Foy, Jena and Ryan Brady, and Katie and Jake Barber. Among them, they have career experience in education, theater, web design, project management, business, marketing and more. And the Barbers already have a successful community children’s project under their belts: They led the effort to restore Graceada Park’s wading pool and splash pad after the water features’ infrastructure, including pumps and filters, was destroyed by fires.

The museum project is much larger, with an anticipated cost of at least a couple million, vs. the couple hundred thousand of the Graceada work. So among the earliest steps is gathering feedback from residents of Modesto and throughout the county.

“One of our goals right now is completing a big feasibility study of what the community wants and what the community can support,” Ryan Foy said, “and so we have a website (modestochildrensmuseum.org) set up with an online survey that we’d love to get input from the community.”

The survey may be taken in English or Spanish. It asks 11 questions, including how much respondents would be willing to pay for admission, how often they’d visit and what features and exhibits they’d like. It asks which areas would be acceptable locations: downtown Modesto, Sisk Road (Vintage Faire/Salida area), Bangs Avenue/McHenry Avenue area, east Modesto/La Loma area, or elsewhere. It wants to know which places families frequent, including Central Valley Play and Grow, Modesto Junior College’s Great Valley Museum and Planetarium, playgrounds, Rockin’ Jump, the Stanislaus County Library and the Gallo Center for the Arts, among many others.

“We’re looking at hitting a population of children 12 and under,” Katie Barber said. “We want this to be a hands-on, interactive play experience for children and their families. ... We want this to be a resource for the community, something that could be a destination ”

The board foresees exhibits including a nod to the Modesto/Stanislaus community and culture, with farming elements, water elements, perhaps even a Graffiti element, Chelsea Foy said. “Not to lean into any of those things, but to include little love notes to our community here and there, mixed into these other rich learning experiences.”

Those experiences likely will include a lot of STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) learning, like what causes wind, how magnets work and how to tie knots, Jake Barber said.

There will be permanent and semi-permanent exhibits, board members said, but also space reserved for rotating or traveling exhibits that might be in place for a month to six months or more. The museum will need to stay fresh and fluid to keep families returning, they said.

“We’ve made a lot of visits to other children’s museums, seeing how they operate,” Ryan Foy said. One had a visiting exhibit about author-illustrator Eric Carle’s beloved “The Very Hungry Caterpillar.” Another did a puppeteering collaboration with The Jim Henson Co.

Board members said they’ve visited and consulted with museums in big cities including Pittsburgh, Boston and Chicago, but also have looked at what cities similar in size and demographics to Modesto, such as Madison, Wisconsin, have been able to do.

“A lot of these museums are housed in kind of neat spaces,” Jake Barber said. “Some are old abandoned warehouses, some are old architectural wonders.” The Modesto Children’s Museum board envisions a building of 15,000 to 20,000 square feet. For comparison, the Children’s Museum of Stockton is about 22,000.

The rest of this year, the board is focusing on its feasibility study, obtaining its nonprofit status and putting together an advisory board. In 2020, it will work on spreading the word, fundraising (seeking grants, grass-roots donations and major sponsors) and choosing a location. The building process then would start in 2021.

After a capital effort to create and open the museum, the plan is that it would be sustained through admission, gift shop sales and event bookings, such as birthday parties and school trips.

About what the board has seen in other other museums, Chelsea Foy said, “They all have their own personality and energy, and I’m really excited to see what this will be here, what Modesto wants and needs. It’s such an exciting thing because it’s what we create, what the town can create together.”

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Deke has been an editor and reporter with The Modesto Bee since 1995. He currently does breaking-news, education and human-interest reporting. A Beyer High grad, he studied geology and journalism at UC Davis and CSU Sacramento.