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Where Imagination Rules

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The passionate forces behind the Thinkery dreamed big. As a result, Austin’s stunning and wildly successful new children’s museum has created a neighborhood of its own.

Lynn Meredith hails from a family of educators. So it’s no surprise that when she moved to Austin in 1993, with her husband and four children (the youngest at the time were ages two and six), she quickly became immersed in the Austin Children’s Museum, which was originally founded in 1983 and was housed in temporary locations like malls and libraries. She joined the board of directors and helped raise $6.5 million to open the museum’s former incarnation at 2nd and Colorado in 1997. Today that corner is ground zero for the well-heeled design district, but at the time it wasn’t much of a neighborhood. “It was an area of homeless people and businesses that went dark in the evening,” Meredith remembers.

All that was about to change. As Austin’s rapid growth spurt took hold, the museum space felt increasingly compromised. “The problem was that we were always retrofitting, not creating,” Meredith says. “I used to tell friends it was like trying to fit a size nine foot into a size six shoe.” Which soon posed the question “Where else could the museum be located?”

“The quandary was whether to remain downtown and be limited by space and building constraints or to find a new location where we could do whatever we wanted,” Meredith says. Anyone who’s tried to drive downtown during a festival or parade knows that sometimes “central” is actually not so family-friendly. The idea of being in an area where families would be comfortable, with free parking, plenty of options for buying food, and room for outdoor play space and picnic areas became increasingly attractive.

At the time, in 2008, the Mueller development was well underway and it offered everything downtown did not. And the location, just off the I-35 corridor, spoke to the broader needs of a growing city. “Austin has become a regional community,” Meredith says. “We wanted to create a museum that followed a model like Dell Children’s Hospital and be an institution that reaches into many communities. At Mueller, we had the opportunity to make Austin’s premier family place so accessible.”

One of the positives in moving into the I-35 corridor is that families from the surrounding areas like Georgetown or Round Rock can easily pop onto the highway and zip down to spend a few hours at the Thinkery. “As our center is continually built out, we’ve become a Central Texas Region,” Meredith says.

The $18 million result of all the imagining and planning, which opened in December 2013, is twice the size of the former location. In the soaring 40,000-square-foot facility, parents have an unobscured view for long distances, so keeping an eye on kids is easier and it feels safe. “We wanted a flexible space that could accommodate many different kinds of exhibits, and yet kids would feel that they owned it,” Meredith says. “Kids feel free and in control.”

Meredith credits architect Jim Susman, a principal at STG Design in Austin and past president of the Children’s Museum board, as an instrumental guide throughout the process. “He was able to translate through design what it means not only to be a children’s museum, but to be a children’s museum in Austin, Texas.”

The project attracted an impressive staff from around the country to fulfill the museum’s mission: “To create innovative learning experiences that equip and inspire the next generation of creative problem solvers.” The planners drew inspiration from places like the Exploratorium in San Francisco, the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles, and the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. The model of learning is built on “STEAM” education (science, technology, engineering, art, and math) as well as healthy living. Features include cool hands-on exhibits, an outdoor gallery that incorporates a playscape and water play, expanded content for children 0–11 (especially the older ages), and dynamic new programming.

“Being a kid at heart, a gadget geek, and a dad, I love places of wonder and exploration,” says Rodney Gibbs, chief innovation officer for the Texas Tribune. “The Thinkery is the kind of place I’ve long admired in other cities. I would drag myself home asking, ‘Why doesn’t Austin have something this cool? Now it does.’”

In some ways the Thinkery has validated the highest aspirations for what Mueller could become. Erica Keast Heroy, an architect who lives in the neighborhood with her husband and two young children, recently attended a Sunday morning birthday party at the museum. “It was one of those amazing spring mornings, and the bike ride there was short and perfect with small kids in tow. Afterwards, when we left, I felt like we were walking into a festival. People from everywhere were going into the Thinkery, a lot was going on at the Mueller Lake Park playground, and then of course the farmers’ market was buzzing. It was the first time I really saw in action what is planned for this neighborhood and I felt really excited to be a part of it.”

“The joy, the noise, the concentration. It has exceeded all of my expectations,” Meredith says. “I cannot believe what a success it’s been.” On any given day, there are toddlers in smocks happily painting on an expansive glass screen or playing grocery store with plastic produce, and large groups of schoolchildren. Community night (Wednesdays, 5-8 pm) is frequently packed, and over spring break there was a need for tickets to be sold in timed intervals to control crowds. And the demand continues to grow.

In the midst of the happy chaos, the most poignant snapshots are scenes of parents and kids experiencing the exhibits together.

“The road ahead is gleaming,” Meredith says proudly, “the opportunities to impact teachers, kids, parents. I see the Thinkery taking a spot on the landscape of the country as being an incredible place for learning and teaching. The staff and the professionals that we have attracted are inspiring, and with the buzz that is in Austin now, the possibilities are endless.”

Credits

Photography by Brent Humphreys

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