Traveling families don't get to celebrate new children’s museums all that often. In the next four months, however, we’ll get to will welcome two: the National Children’s Museum, which opens next week (Dec. 14) in National Harbor, Maryland (just outside Washington, D.C.); and the DISCOVERY Children’s Museum, which is expected to open in February in downtown Las Vegas. In advance of the NCM’s big day, I caught up with Willard Whitson, the facility’s president and CEO, to get the inside scoop.
Q. What would you say will become the distinguishing characteristics of the NCM?
A. Definitely our focus on global citizenship. Our mission statement is to inspire children to care about and improve the world, and we have an overarching emphasis on global citizenship and world cultures. We also take play very seriously. We are committed to learning through play, and have put together a number of interactive exhibits.
Q. Can you give us a sense of what those exhibits will be?
A. One of them is a scaled-down version of a real city. It’s got everything: a school, a pizza parlor, even a election campaign headquarters (I mean, it is D.C.). Within each of these environments, kids have the opportunity to make decisions and interact. Another exhibit emphasizes world cultures. One part talks about the differences between housing structures. In an area about transportation, kids can try a three-wheeled vehicle from Thailand. The centerpiece of this exhibit is a Tanzanian marketplace where kids can pretend to buy goods and services and learn through that. Finally, we’ve got a special area for kids three and under. Part of this area is set up like a town; some of it is branded with Sesame Street characters. The section also has lots of loose parts for kids to use to make whatever they want.
Q. What other attractions will the museum have?
A. We have a 130-seat theater. And we have our own production company. So we’ll do original children’s programming. We’ll also bring in other kid-oriented productions and entertainers. Another component of the museum is the Center for Learning and Innovation; that’s where we’ll hold adult education classes and, of course, birthday parties. One thing we don’t have is a café.
Q. To what extent did you feel pressure in pulling this together, considering it’s a brand new children’s museum in the nation’s capital?
A. I’m not going to lie—we felt quite a bit. The way we responded to pressure was by being rigorous in the quality of our programs and the thoroughness of preparation over the eight years we’ve been in development. We’ve had kid advisory groups, we’ve worked with educational experts. We’ve prototyped concepts in a place called the LaunchZone. We really tried to build this museum around what our patrons—what families and their children—would want. I think we’ve done a good job.
Q. What, if anything, will change about the museum once it opens?
A. We plan on building a large outdoor experience here at National Harbor. We don’t have a date for it yet, but we know we want to have it. I like to call it a museum without a roof. We’ll have gardens, water areas, a challenge mountain, an outdoor amphitheater and a big imagination tent where kids can do art projects. The idea is to stimulate them to be creative in the outdoors.
Q. I know the DC area is notorious for its traffic. From a practical perspective, what’s the easiest way for visiting families to get to the museum from downtown?
A. National Harbor is not accessible by Metro, but we’re accessible by car. There also is a bus. For a real treat, families can take a water taxi that runs across the river from Alexandria.
For more about the National Children’s Museum, click here.