Saturday, October 07, 2006

THE CITY DESK - Rory Riddler, Councilman Ward 1

Children’s Museum: The Spark
To Light A Thousand Dreams

Growing up my brother and I were fortunate to have parents who felt strongly about inspiring us both to learn. They made learning fun. That’s a notion that, unfortunately, too many kids today can’t relate to. For them learning is simply drudgery.

One of the lessons our parents were able to instill was that learning had no boundaries. It wasn’t confined to the brick walls or front steps of the grade school we attended. It didn’t end when our homework was done.

It seemed like almost every weekend we climbed into that old Chevy and went somewhere fun and educational. Shaw’s Garden, the Jefferson Memorial in Forrest Park, the Jewel Box, the Art Museum, the Zoo, Planetarium, the Old Court House in St. Louis, Grant’s Farm, the Museum of Transportation, the Campbell House, the old Pioneer Museum in St. Peters (sadly gone now for many years), and the Boone Home to name a few. We also would visit Mr. Frank who built the log cabins on West Clay. He would take the time to show my brother and I how to carve those wonderful sculptures of Honest Abe out of wood and regaled us with stories of his favorite President.

One of my favorite destinations was the old Science Museum in Oak Knoll Park. Occupying a wonderful old stone house and grounds at Clayton and Big Bend, the museum was one of my windows to the larger world before the internet. The visible (or was it invisible) woman display, introduced us to the functions of the human body, though the clear plastic mannequin was a lot less titillating than young minds had imagined. It taught me that beauty is only skin deep and that no woman looks good without an epidermis.

The museum had a lot of traveling exhibits. One of my favorites was about the shipwreck Vasa (pronounced Wasa) in Sweden, where underwater archaeologist managed to find and salvage a Royal Swedish war ship from the 16th Century. I still have the framed print of that ship I purchased in the modest gift shop that day.

In some respects the old Science Museum was better than the new one near the Planetarium. I think it mainly comes down to a matter of scale. The drive to serve so many more patrons has taken some of the edge off the experience.

Fortunately there are a few places that retain the qualities of the old Science Museum. The Children’s Museum in Quincy Illinois is located in a beautiful Victorian mansion, whose second and third floors are a labyrinth of fun and interactive things for kids to do. Edwardsville has also put together a wonderful Children’s Museum as an amenity of that community.

Which brings me to the topic of why a Children’s Museum could be a good thing for our community. Early childhood development has proven to be essential to establishing a firm foundation for a lifetime of learning. It certainly was for me. I further believe our community would benefit from an educational facility that could offer a variety of creative tactile learning experiences, stimulating changeable exhibits, exposure to cutting edge technology and interesting programs for a variety of ages.

The New City Museum, Magic House and Science Center are great facilities, but are a bit far away for families in St. Charles to visit as often as they might like. St. Charles City alone has over 2,200 pre-school children and 4,600 elementary school children. St. Charles County has over 13,300 pre-school children and 28,500 elementary school children…nearly 42,000 kids that could be served by a more convenient facility. I envision a museum on the scale of the old Science Center, one that could provide parents and teachers a place for preschool and K-5 fun and learning that is both convenient and affordable.

There is within our community a large reserve of professional educators, current and retired school administrators, design and technical experts in a variety of fields, a supportive business and corporate community, as well as many enthusiastic and dedicated parents willing to give of their time and energy. To tap that wellspring of talent and volunteerism, I sponsored a resolution this week to create a Children’s Museum Commission.

I tried to set the bar high in the wording of the resolution:

“Now Therefore Be It Resolved By The City Council Of The City Of St. Charles that there is hereby established the Children’s Museum Commission Of St. Charles, dedicated to the spirit inspired by the late Melvin Washington, whose mission shall be to assess the feasibility and design a fun and creative public learning facility to lift the spirit, expand the mind and excite the imagination of our children and generations yet unborn.”

The Commission will be comprised of thirteen members, one each from the ten wards appointed by the Councilman from each ward, or in the absence of an appointment from a Councilman the Mayor, and two at-large representatives appointed by the Mayor. The thirteenth member will be a Council liaison appointed by the Mayor with the consent of the Council. Already there have been several people volunteer.

The Commission is charged with the study of existing facilities in other communities, research on facilities nationwide, the latest in hands-on equipment and displays in the fields of math, science, astronomy, space exploration, history, archeology, geology, biology, health, medicine, engineering, architecture and computer science (to name a few) museum design and space needs, staffing, annual budget, safety, insurance concerns, volunteerism programs, potential partnerships, funding, giving programs, grants and potential locations.

There is some money is the 2008 Capital Budget for a professional feasibility study. That will cap off the first year of the Commission’s work, which must issue a report to the Council within 24 months. That seems like a long time from now, but these will be citizen volunteers and there is much to do. I hope the path we have started down is one that will result in a quality place of learning and inspiration for today’s children. It could be the spark that lights a thousand dreams.