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Children's museum group hopes field trip to Illinois museum exhibits similar need

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Kathleen Foody
August 7, 2009
— Genna Mullen adjusted her apron and faced her blank canvas. Clutching a paint brush drenched in blue paint, the 5-year-old from Milton twisted her lips to the side and touched the tip of the brush to the clear Plexiglas.

She paid no attention to the kids swiping primary colors across the surface on either side, her eyes focused intently on her vision.


One stroke of yellow. A pause. A swipe of the wet squeegee in her other hand. A broad stroke extended from the brush creating a circle, again and again until she had a perfect shape on the glass.


Mullen's painting technique displayed at an exhibit at the Children's Discovery Museum in Normal, Ill., on Thursday is a bit like the efforts to create a similar museum in Janesville.


The nonprofit advocating for a museum has stopped raising money temporarily due to the weak economy. City council members worried about where the money will come from have also questioned the effort.


But the group is still trying to create its vision, this time by convincing community members that the project is worth the investment through visits to nearby children's museums.


A group of about 80 children and parents from the area traveled to the museum in Normal, Ill., on Thursday for a day of climbing, splashing and painting.


Bringing community members to other children's museums is essential to convincing them the project is worthwhile, said Cheryl Peterson, a member of the steering committee for Janesville Museum, Inc.


"We've found that people don't really understand what a children's museum is because that word 'museum' carries images of exhibits behind glass," she said. "Trips like this are an opportunity to show them it's all about touching and playing to learn and to market this idea."


Members of the city council traveled to Normal's museum last year before they voted to contribute a controversial $5 million if the committee could raise $3 million. Council members Tom McDonald and Bill Truman have expressed hesitation about the city's ability to contribute that much in past interviews with the Gazette.


Council member Yuri Rashkin came on Thursday's trip with his 8-year-old daughter, Isabelle, and said he's still concerned about the price tag associated with a museum.


"After a trip like this, of course we say, 'Wow that would be a cool thing to have,'" Rashkin said. "Then you start looking at the numbers and go, 'Ehh, I don't know about this.'"


The adults and children who rode buses for 2 and a half hours each way seemed to agree with the "cool" part.


Leslie Counsell brought her 5-year-old granddaughter, Macy Hall, and 11-year-old grandson, Parker Hall, on the trip and said she thinks a children's museum would be a great asset to Janesville. The family has been taking the kids to other children's museums in Rockford, Madison and Milwaukee since they were babies, Counsell said.


"I think a lot of people would use it, and you really do see them using the exhibits and learning at the same time," she said.


Macy spent much of the visit climbing through a two-level maze of thick rope ladders and platforms suspended from the ceiling. Parker wasn't sure a children's museum was a great option and didn't find much to interest him, but Macy enthusiastically said, "I do!"


Arlene Welling brought her 3-year-old son, Caden, and said she would love to have a museum closer to their home in Edgerton.


"I think every city should have one, they're so good for the kids," Welling said.


Normal's museum is run by the city's parks and recreation department and prepares its own line-item budget along with grant money each year, said manager Shari Buckellew. The museum moved into its location in downtown Normal during November 2004 after 10 years at a warehouse further from the downtown area. It serves 135,000 visitors each year.


Buckellew said she considers other children's museums in the state to be collaborators, not competition. The staff share ideas and help each other become better, she added.


"I think anyone trying to establish a children's museum needs to get the buy-in from the community and do your research to convince them of the impact it can have on a community," she said.


Peterson said she hopes the trip helped convince the 80 travelers.


"It's hard to see the vision until you actually get in a museum," she said. "I think today showed them the value of having a museum like this locally."



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