Most of the founding team that first brought the Children’s Discovery Museum into existence 25 years ago will be honored at a two-part anniversary celebration this week in Normal.
The museum, which first opened in 1994 at the now-defunct College Hills Mall, is now an anchor of the redeveloped Uptown Normal and recently welcomed its 2 millionth visitor.
"The spirit of what we’re trying to do is say thank you. None of this stuff happens in a vacuum,” said Beth Whisman, executive director of the Town of Normal’s Cultural Arts Department and Children’s Discovery Museum. “You have to say thank you to the donors and the community and the families and the elected officials, the former staff, volunteers, and interns. This (museum) really is what it is because all of those people made a difference.”
Several of the original museum founders will be on hand for Thursday’s 25th anniversary celebration, including co-founder Shari Buckellew. She saw the need for a children’s museum in Bloomington-Normal back in the 1980s, when she had young kids herself.
“I said something to a friend of mine, ‘This town really needs a children’s museum.’ Back then people were like, ‘What’s a children’s museum?’” Buckellew said. “And so that started a very long journey of educating people on what it was and trying to get one opened here.”
Buckellew began working with co-founder Cheryl Denslow to make it happen.
The museum first opened at the College Hills Mall, then moved to Constitution Place a year later. Its current home in Uptown Normal opened in 2004.
In fact, the museum almost didn’t move to Uptown. It was circling a site near the Central Illinois Regional Airport in Bloomington when those working on the redevelopment of then-Downtown Normal turned their attention to creating a family destination there.
Another game-changer was pulling the private museum under the Town of Normal’s Parks and Recreation department.
“There was a lot of physical and emotional energy that was put into it,” said Buckellew, also a former director of the museum.
Several other museum founders will be recognized Thursday, including Denslow, artist Herb Eaton, architect Doris Reeser, graphic designer Kathy Moore, and early childhood education experts Andrea Ginnetti and Lynette Reiners. Without each of them, the museum’s future would’ve been very different, Whisman said.
“It’s a little bit of a who’s who in the community,” she said of the original team.
Thursday’s event will also focus on the museum’s future. The museum recently renovated the Imagine Air exhibit on its second floor. Design work is underway on the new Healthy Me medical exhibit, which will open in August 2020. The second-floor agriculture exhibit and third-floor paint fall are also in need of rehab, Whisman said. (Exhibits are privately funded; the Town of Normal covers the cost of museum staff.)
“Two million kids love something, it’s gonna show,” she said.
As it has in the past, the museum must be willing to adapt, Whisman said. If Uptown 2.0 comes to fruition to its south, the museum may want to rework its backyard outdoor exhibit space, for example. They can’t build a fourth floor, but could the rooftop space be used for something else?
“Every floor has opportunity,” she said. “It’s community members around the table, thinking about what’s best for our youngest learners, how we connect to the community, and how we pay for it.”
Thursday’s 25th anniversary includes a 7:30 a.m. breakfast celebration at the Marriott in Uptown Normal. The museum will be open for a special night of play from 1-8 p.m., with $3 throwback pricing, door prizes, and other special perks.
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