- Associated Press - Saturday, July 23, 2016

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) - In the 1970s, Karen Levin entered a children’s museum for the first time. The Boston Children’s Museum, to be exact.

“I just immediately was overcome,” she told the Omaha World-Herald (https://bit.ly/2ajFI2Q ). “Oh my god, this is amazing. I get this, I get this entirely.”

Without paying admission, she walked to the back of the museum and asked for a job. The following week, Levin sat in line waiting for an interview.

When she got into the room, at midnight, after about six hours of waiting, the interviewer asked: Why do you want to work here?

Levin said: “I really don’t know why but I do know that if you hire me, it will change my life.”

She got the job. And as predicted, it changed everything.

It led Levin to Omaha to open the city’s first children’s museum. The Omaha Children’s Museum is now celebrating its 40th anniversary and has welcomed thousands upon thousands of tiny guests through its doors in its decades of service to Omaha.

Levin and her husband moved to Omaha a few years after she concluded her temporary job at the Boston Children’s Museum. She told her parents she would open a children’s museum when she got here. She was 25 years old.

Levin pored over the Omaha newspapers to find out who the major players were in the community. She called them up and made appointments. She attended a conference. And this way, she assembled a team to get her museum idea off the ground.

“It just kind of fell like dominoes,” Levin said.

She met Evelyn Zysman, Jane Ford and Betty Hiller, as well as David and Liz Karnes, who all helped with her cause.

David Karnes, a former U.S. senator and attorney at Kutak Rock, said helping with the museum was a labor of love.

“I did the legal work but you couldn’t help but get inspired by the vision,” he said.

Today, the museum is run by executive director Lindy Hoyer, who joined the team in 1986. The organization serves to focus on “the earliest learners and explorers.”

The term “museum” often conjures certain images in people’s minds: a quiet environment where things are to be looked at and appreciated but never, ever touched.

At the Omaha Children’s Museum, exploration and play are encouraged. Guests can participate in science experiments, shop at a pretend grocery store and climb around on structures. Play is the whole point.

“It’s structured here to be unstructured,” Hoyer said. “There’s no failing.”

That builds confidence and encourages learning. Children bound around, interacting with water exhibits and pretending to cook on a fake grill. Some participate in open arts and crafts projects, others climb netting meant to simulate an ocean wave.

When Levin, who had studied social work, set out to create this place of growth and learning, there was no physical museum space. So, the “museum” lived in a garage. Staff members took it out on the road in a station wagon; its first appearance was at the 1976 Summer Arts Festival.

The wagon appeared at festivals and events with activities designed to get kids’ brains working. Ford ran a preschool in Bellevue called the Welcome School. Before each outing, the staff would raid the school for art supplies: easels, paint, paper and clay.

At festivals, each table would have a different art project: potato stamps and other activities often found in a preschool classroom.

In 1977, the museum found a slightly more permanent home in the City Connector Building at 18th and Farnam Streets.

Levin stepped away from the museum in the early 1980s.

“I hadn’t slept for five years,” she said.

She relaxed, began working in the local arts community and regrouped. The museum kept on growing. She would eventually rejoin as a president of the museum board for a while. She became the executive director of the Metropolitan Arts Council in the early 1990s and is now a director of development for the University of Nebraska Foundation.

In 1981, the museum shifted to 18th Street and St. Mary’s Avenue. The space was tiny. And the museum decided in 1989 it wanted to bring a giant dinosaur exhibit to town. So officials moved the museum two blocks up the street to its current location, 20th Street and St. Mary’s, a former car dealership that could house the gigantic beasts.

The move was supposed to be temporary. But the dinosaurs were popular and attendance soared, Hoyer said. People decided the Omaha Children’s Museum needed a home of its own. A capital campaign resulted in the purchase of its current building in 1993.

The museum has 60,000 square feet, which is larger than most children’s museums in a market this size, Hoyer said.

“We are a traditional children’s museum, but we’ve always been a children’s museum that is willing to try to push the edge of what we do,” Hoyer said.

Mom Stephanie Eshel of Los Angeles brought her son, Eli, 6, to the museum recently as part of a trip home to Omaha to visit her parents. She said her son’s favorite part is the Super Gravitron, a giant pneumatic tube system filled with balls. He loves “figuring out how it all works,” she said.

Omaha mom Lisa Abele has been bringing her children to the museum almost weekly since it hosted a “Wizard of Oz”-themed exhibit in 2012. Her daughter, Zoe Rumbaugh, is known as Princess Zoe around the museum. Museum staff call her that because she hangs out in the museum’s Fairytale Land and dresses in costume.

The family comes for the whole day. Abele said the kids like everything, especially the museum’s temporary exhibitions upstairs.

An in-house team crafts most of the museum’s temporary exhibits, including the current “Pirates and Mermaids: Voyage to Creature Cove.”

The museum has one person on staff dedicated solely to crafting exhibits. It has recently added another. Designers have backgrounds in sculpting, computer-aided design and drafting, and scenic design. Temporary exhibits are built in-house, while more permanent designs are made by local company Heartland Scenic Studio.

Hoyer said the museum occasionally brings in traveling exhibits, but not often, and usually just to give the in-house staff time to catch up. The next one isn’t scheduled until 2018.

Dinosaurs and creatures are purchased and owned by the museum instead of rented from other companies. The museum recently rented out one of its exhibits to a children’s museum in Irvine, California.

The goal of the museum is to engage the imagination and create excitement about learning, and a good exhibit should do that, Hoyer said. Kids should be able to engage their whole bodies and have more one-on-one intimate learning experiences. The museum’s “Pirates and Mermaids” exhibit features opportunities to climb a pirate ship or play on rope waves, but there are also guided animal touch tanks and other intellectual pursuits.

In celebration of its anniversary, the museum has staged a replica of the original station wagon out front. A new exhibit, “Imagination,” will bring together bits and pieces of exhibits including nostalgic and iconic pieces from the last four decades, Hoyer said. It will open in mid-October.

The museum has seen unprecedented growth over the last four or five years, Hoyer said. Last year, there were more than 300,000 visits to the museum, and it’s on track to exceed that number in 2016.

Trent Demulling, the Omaha Children’s Museum’s board chairman and vice president and CFO of Peter Kiewit Sons’ Inc., said the museum soon will need more space for parking. Leaders have been evaluating different scenarios, both at the current location and off site.

“The future is bright at the Children’s Museum,” he said.

Levin isn’t surprised. She always knew it would happen this way.

“I fully expected the children’s museum to become what it is today and what its legacy will be for all time,” she said.

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Information from: Omaha World-Herald, https://www.omaha.com

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