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In step, in tune and in color 

by Kris Dinnison

Spokane's families have a reason to celebrate this week as the Spokane Children's Museum celebrates its third anniversary, with extended hours today, including birthday cake and face painting.

The museum, which has been on Post Street downtown since June of 1998, was actually created in May of 1995 by founders Mary Brandt, Martha Gilligan-Gaines and Lupe Gilmartin. After partnering with the Cheney Cowles Museum to provide some outreach to raise interest in the project, those founders, and the 200 founding member families, opened the museum's first, temporary incarnation in a storefront downtown in the fall of 1996.

"That was only open for four months," explains Brandt, the museum's executive director. "It was just to give Spokane an idea of what we were trying to create."

Spokane got the idea, and by the time the storefront location closed, more than 10,000 visitors had explored the museum, and the number of families with memberships had grown to 600.

But for the museum's board, the work was just beginning as they began to search for a permanent home for the museum.

"We needed to be downtown, near the core, because moving south or north or to the Valley made us a neighborhood museum, and we wanted to be a regional museum," Brandt explains. As downtown's face began to change, spaces that would accommodate the museum began to emerge. "We were looking for a downtown site that would have foot traffic, that was safe, that was near the revitalization," says Brandt. The Post Street location has met all those needs. "It's wonderful being close to River Park Square, and having visitors from out of town walk by and discover us," Brandt says.

In its third year, the museum has a successful site, which is filling quickly with all the exhibits Brandt and her staff are dreaming up. "We currently have five exhibits, six including the Syncopation Station, but we will have seven this fall."

The museum's offerings cover a wide range of topics, including culture, art, music, natural science, physics and music. The Monroe Street Bridge Gallery allows kids to use recycled materials to create art. There is a building area, the Garden, designed for the museum's youngest visitors, and regular temporary exhibits like the Syncopation Station, a music experience based on German composer Carl Orff's musical methods. YiaYia Sofia's Greek Village -- one of the original exhibits in the museum's first location -- was recently honored by the Daughters of Penelope, a Greek philanthropic organization. The Children's Museum has also sponsored essay contests, art contests, "American Girl" parties, and many other special events to stimulate the lives and learning of Spokane's children.

The Museum's mission is to provide an environment for kids to explore that is safe and nurturing, and that mission extends to all children, not just those whose families can afford the membership fee. "We have a program so low-income children and their caregivers can come to the museum free," explains Brandt. "Five thousand visitors were sponsored this year. We use every cent that's given to that program."

In addition to ensuring a great museum experience for the kids of Spokane, Brandt and her staff are also dedicated to the museum's role as an educational institution. "We're really proud of our children's programs," Brandt says. "One of our goals is to be a better resource, to really ask teachers what they would like to see at the museum and then provide that."

Early childhood education is also a focus for the museum. "We draw a lot on children birth to age 4," says Brandt. "One of our exhibits, the Garden, is for those children." Parents and educators of those children are spreading the word about the museum, too. "We get a lot of word-of-mouth, and that's why people come, " says Brandt. "We get a lot of co-ops, preschool groups, daycares." With funding cuts in programs like Head Start and other early childhood support, privately run nonprofits like the museum become more and more essential to a community.

Becoming an essential part of the community is exactly what Brandt has in mind. In fact, at a recent Children's Museum Association conference, a museum's role in the community in the midst of a consumer-oriented world was at the center of the conversation.

"They [the mass marketers] spend millions and millions and millions of dollars to target children," says Brandt. Can children's museums be an oasis of non-marketing in a world where marketing is king? "That was what the theme was about," Brandt explains. "That we have a responsibility in our community to be safe public spaces. There are very few public spaces being designed for children that are not opportunistic."

The Children's Museum, 110 N. Post, celebrates its birthday on Thursday, July 5, from 10 am- 8 pm. Admission: $3. Summer hours are 10 am-5 pm, Tues.-Sat., and 10 am-8 pm on Thursdays through Aug. 31. Regular admission: $3.75 for ages 1 and up. Call: 624-KIDS (5437).

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