17 May 2021 // Thoughts

Five Small Museums Generating Big Impact for Their Communities

You don’t always need a big budget to make a big impact.

For the past 13 years, JRA has been a proud sponsor of the Association of Children’s Museums Small Museums Financial Aid program, which offers complimentary Interactivity conference registrations to leaders of museums with annual budgets under $500,000.

“JRA is proud to continue our partnership with the Association of Children’s Museums to sponsor the Small Museums Financial Aid Program,” said Shawn McCoy, JRA Vice President and ACM Education Committee Member. “These scholarships allow smaller institutions from around the world to attend ACM’s annual Interactivity Conference, where they can interact with their peers, learn best practices, and become inspired with fresh new ideas that they can use to better serve their communities.”

The 2021 Small Museum Financial Aid recipients faced one of the most challenging years in history, yet they still managed to embody this year’s conference theme of “Care, Connect, and Create Resilience” by devising innovative ways of serving their audiences. They are:

small museums impact communities

Children’s Museum of Illinois – Decatur, Illinois

Need a destination for imagination? Look no further than Children’s Museum of Illinois (CMofIL). The 20,000-square-foot, castle-like building re-opened in late April, welcoming back children ages 3 to 12 to what Child Magazine named “one of the top 25 children’s museums in the country.” Exhibits include an agricultural exhibit, health-based activities, play restaurant, toddler area, and theater. In its immersive “Heroes Hall,” visitors can “put on a uniform and crack actual cases while learning the ins and outs of what it takes to serve and protect a community.” Kids can even jump into the cockpit of a police helicopter parked outside!

As with the other scholarship recipients, CMofIL has offered its community plenty of “Home Fun” during the pandemic, with a webpage full of projects and activities – from crafting homemade bird feeders to creating rain in a jar.

“Children’s Museum of Illinois is a small children’s museum whose budget has been immensely impacted by the pandemic,” explained Jason “Sandy” Sandberg, VP of Museum Experiences. “Like with many others, professional development has been eliminated for this year due to budget constraints. We are extremely grateful to be able to learn, network, and brainstorm best practices in the children’s museum industry with our colleagues across the world. This scholarship has made it possible for our entire small staff to continue work at our museum during a busy and ever-changing environment and still receive top tier professional development.

Little Buckeye Museum

Little Buckeye Children’s Museum – Mansfield, Ohio

Little Buckeye Children’s Museum is a hands-on, play-based museum with nearly 40 different interactive exhibits, making it an ideal destination for children ages 2 to 10. The mission of the museum, which is currently celebrating its tenth anniversary, is to “provide children and families opportunities to learn and discover through the power of play.” The museum’s self-directed play experiences in exhibits such as the Doctor’s Office, Little Renaissance Theatre, and Little Stoodt’s Market encourage children to express themselves while exercising their bodies, stimulating their minds, and creating deeper parent-child connections.

Like so many other children’s museums, Little Buckeye has been closed to the public during the pandemic. And, like so many other children’s museums, it has continued to serve its community, offering informative blogs on combatting isolation and resources on easy and educational activities parents can do at home.

Mid-Michigan Childrens Museum

Mid-Michigan Children’s Museum – Saginaw, Michigan

Mid-Michigan Children’s Museum (MMCM) offers 16,000 square feet of gallery space – planned, designed, and built just for kids! Founded in 1999, the museum “provides a hands-on, ‘Play and Learn’ environment that engages and motivates children to use their curiosity and creativity to learn about the world.” Through their “Play for All” initiative, the museum aims to reduce barriers to play so that all children and families can experience with MMCM has to offer. Each of the museum’s 11 galleries are school curriculum based and developed with input from students, educators, and museum specialists. Though temporarily closed, the museum offers a variety of educational tools through its “Play At Home” catalog, including instructions for hands-on STEM challenges, ideas for arts and crafts activities, and videos on favorite children’s stories.

“Being able to participate in Interactivity through the ACM Small Museums Scholarship means so much to the Mid-Michigan Children’s Museum,” said Jessie Teeter, MMCM Play & Learn Coordinator. “Staff is able to learn from and interact with other museums to get a new perspective, for which we are incredibly grateful, as we continue to navigate through a changed world.

Mt. Pleasant Childrens Museum

Mt. Pleasant Discovery Museum – Mt. Pleasant, Michigan

With over 12,000 square feet of exhibits, Mt. Pleasant Discovery Museum (MPDM) serves as a community anchor and family resource for its six surrounding counties. The museum was founded by a group of visionaries passionate about play-based education and the need to bring a children’s museum to Central Michigan. Exhibits include Beezmazium, where children can explore the science behind bees; “One World”, where children can learn more about Mt. Pleasant’s Sister City of Okaya, Japan; and Friendship Field 2.0, an outdoor greenhouse that can be enjoyed year-round. MPDM is currently in the fundraising stages to “launch” its new exhibit, “3,2,1…Blast Off!”, which features a 3-story, 19-foot-wide, 30-foot-tall rocket climber, as well as a collaborative interactive area.

Even during its seven-month closure, MPDM was committed to keeping the children of Central Michigan “exploring, learning, creating and growing from home.” In late April, the museum hosted a “Cheers to Children” virtual event, encouraging participants to don their black-tie attire and post a “cheers” to the event page to show their support for the museum, its sponsors, and the families unable to visit. A few months later, MPDM partnered with Fisher Companies for a Drive-Up Giveaway of baskets filled with arts, crafts and do-at-home activities. Since re-opening in October 2020, MPDM has enjoyed re-introducing its robust calendar of events to support families and children in their community, featuring Story Time Sessions, Teen Nights, Sensory Nights, and Science Sundays.

Niantic Children's Museum

Niantic Children’s Museum – Niantic, CT

Founded in 1992, the mission of the 5,000-square-foot Niantic Children’s Museum is to “engage, encourage and challenge children from 9 months to 9 years in the arts, sciences, and world cultures.” The museum features two main rooms, as well as an outdoor playscape. In the “Imagination Room,” little explorers can set sail as a boat captain in the Seaside Village, scoop ice cream at the Global Market & Café, or discover all the colors of the rainbow on a giant Lite Brite in the Light Lab. The Discovery Room features a kaleidoscope, a train table, a MakerSpace – and even a few live animals and insects! Outside, visitors can enjoy a climbing wall, dig pit, treehouse, zip line, and children’s garden. In addition to its exhibits, the museum offers STEAMers, an extended, hands-on science, math, and art enrichment program for children ages four to six.

Throughout the pandemic, Niantic Children’s Museum continued to provide STEAM-based fun for children and families. The museum’s blog offered dozens of in-home possibilities, featuring series such as “Little Artists,” “Little Chefs,” and “Summer Science,” as well as special activities for Father’s Day, Mother’s Day, World Oceans Day, and Star Wars Day. As 2020 drew to a close, the museum created a virtual version of their annual family-friendly New Year’s Eve event, “Countdown to Noon,” featuring online science demos, animal appearances, and NYE traditions from around the world. To complement Countdown to Noon, the museum’s blog offered 30 straight days of recipes, craft ideas, and scavenger hunts.


As the above stories demonstrate, even though visitors couldn’t come through their doors, these small museums found creative opportunities to educate, engage, entertain, and impact their communities. We at JRA congratulate these recipients and hope they enjoy the 2021 virtual conference, but we especially look forward to meeting them and the 2022 Small Museum class in-person next year.

“Since we started the program in 2008, we have heard so many wonderful stories from scholarship recipients about how valuable, meaningful and memorable their experience was,” added McCoy. “We look forward to continuing our support of this important ACM initiative.”

Feature images photos clockwise from top left: Children’s Museum of Illinois, Mid-Michigan Children’s Museum, Mt. Pleasant Discovery Museum, Niantic Children’s Museum, Little Buckeye Children’s Museum.