The Louisiana Children’s Museum is on track to open a first-of-its-kind early childhood campus in New Orleans City Park by the end of 2017, park and museum officials have announced.
Museum officials plan to sell their old building at 420 Julia St. and open the new campus, dubbed the Early Learning Village, in the Roosevelt Mall section of the park.
The project, which has been in the works since it was incorporated into the park’s master plan in 2005, is the only new cultural attraction to be invited into the park so far, according to Julia Bland, the museum’s chief executive officer.
“It’s a huge deal,” Bland said. “We’re relocating, but we’re building on many, many programs we’ve done for years, and we will be able to offer in much greater depth many more resources for the community.”
Designed by a Seattle-based firm called Mithun in collaboration with the local firm of Waggonner & Ball Architects, the new Children’s Museum will be housed in a 58,000-square-foot complex in the park. Officials will utilize another 35,000 square feet of outdoor space, allowing kids for the first time to play and learn outside as part of structured exhibits.
The sprawling project will sit near a lagoon on 8.5 acres of land near the New Orleans Museum of Art.
The move will allow the museum to significantly expand programming for young children and their families, incorporating for the first time a nature center, literacy center, teacher resource center and performing arts center.
There also will be plenty of outdoor activities, including an edibles garden, discovery walks and programs exploring the park’s various ecosystems, all of which have been planned for in the building’s design, Bland said.
“We did a national search to identify architects we felt would understand the goals of the project,” she added about the design partnership. “Together, they’re a dream team.”
The new complex also will allow the museum to participate in on-site collaboration with other organizations. To that end, exhibits are being designed by Gyroscope Inc., a company based in Oakland, California.
One of the unique things about the Early Learning Village campus is that those exhibits will feature the latest scientific findings in agriculture and early childhood development as researched by local institutions, Bland said.
The new museum will partner with medical and university programs such as the Tulane Institute for Infant & Early Childhood Mental Health, as well as the Tulane University School of Medicine and Tulane Hospital for Children. Exhibitions also will be influenced by work coming out of the LSU AgCenter and the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities.
“It’s really unprecedented for a children’s museum to partner with a variety of community resources, a medical school and an agricultural center on site,” Bland said. “Our thinking and planning is this will offer much more beautiful and accessible resources to young children and families with young children.”
Not everything will change. The museum will still have some of the “iconic memories and favorites” from its Julia Street campus, Bland said, including the giant bubble and the kid-sized Winn-Dixie grocery store exhibit. But little ones will have an enriched experience in the new complex, which expands on the museum’s creative design and includes more of a focus on nature, she said.
In terms of the creative arts, the museum will offer a music studio, an architectural studio and an art studio. And because it’s on a lagoon in a park, it also will focus on teaching sustainable practices by means of gardens, floating classrooms and exhibits focused on various ways to use water.
“We’ll be introducing a lot more water in this setting as well as in the exhibits,” Bland said. “As we look at the region where we live, with the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico playing such huge roles, the role of water is one we’re addressing here. It’s an issue globally.”
Taking into account the latest scientific findings about brain development in young children, the Early Learning Center campus will focus on teaching parents and caregivers about how outdoor play time, food types and various technologies affect learning.
“Every space will be a learning space,” Bland said.
Although officials have been planning the project for years, City Park board members made the new development official when they voted at a recent meeting to authorize the park’s leadership to execute a cooperative endeavor agreement with the Children’s Museum.
Present at the meeting was Alison Stouse, the new complex’s project coordinator.
“The project is, for the moment, on track,” Stouse told board members, adding that the museum’s architects visited the site last week and construction is slated to start in 2016. “We’ll be fully operational by the 300th anniversary of the city (in 2018) if we stay on track.”
Stouse added that funding for the project seems to be on track, too. The $38 million Early Learning Village is being financed in three ways, she said: private funds raised by the Children’s Museum, state funding and whatever profit the museum makes by selling its building on Julia Street.
The new project is getting more than $20 million from the state, Stouse said, and the museum anticipates raising $13 million through a private campaign. Of that, officials have already raised $5 million, she said.
City Park CEO Bob Becker said park officials have waited a long time for the agreement to be approved. Earlier this year, the park held a hearing on the plan so the public could provide comments, he added.
“This has been a long time coming,” Becker said.