Home > Arts-Entertainment-Culture, Education, Entertainment, Family, Omaha, Omaha Children's Museum, Uncategorized, Writing, Youth > Omaha Children’s Museum All Grown Up at 40: Celebrating Four Decades of Letting Children’s Imagination Run Free

Omaha Children’s Museum All Grown Up at 40: Celebrating Four Decades of Letting Children’s Imagination Run Free


In 30-plus years of writing about Omaha arts, entertainment, and culture there are very few attractions I have not done a piece on. In some cases I have written multiple stories related to the same venue. An exception to all this was the Omaha Children’s Museum. Our paths simply hadn’t crossed in all that time, though I do remember going there during my early journalism career. Just can’t remember why. But I sure don’t recall writing about it. With this Metro Magazine story about that venue, which celebrates 40 years in 2016, i can cross another one off the list. The museum got off to a very entrepreneurial but humble start and it seemed to plateau several years ago until a reinvestment was made that’s been the catalyst for a resurgence that has seen attendance steadily rise and programming and exhibits progressively increase. Now the museum is running out of space and looking at options to accommodate its current bursting at the seams activity and expected additional growth. The future looks bright and busy and the musuem is deciding whether to expand at its present downtown site or two look at either retrofitting another site, preferably downtown, or building a new museum from the ground up. My story looks back at the museum’s history, charts its growth, and looks ahead to the future.

Visit the digital edition of the magazine and my story at–

http://www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/

 

 

Omaha Children’s Museum All Grown Up at 40: Celebrating Four Decades of Letting Children’s Imagination Run Free 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the May-June-July 2016 issue of Metro Magazine–(http://www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/)

 

This summer Omaha Children’s Museum joins select local attractions boasting 40 years in operation. With 300,000 annual visitors and 10,000 memberships, OCM is enjoying its greatest growth phase now.

Founder Karen Levin suggests why OCM’s proving so popular.

“It’s a very different breed. It’s where people come to play. There’s no expectations, there’s no right or wrong. Interactive learning, sharing and socialization is the theme. What you put into the experience you get out of it. It’s a very multifaceted experience.”

The two women most closely identified with the institution, Levin, and current Executive Director Lindy Hoyer, never expected to run a children’s organization.

Levin was bound for a social work career when she visited the Boston Children’s Museum in 1973. Her “visceral response” led her to work there. That experience inspired her to pursue a children’s museum in Omaha after moving here in 1975.

“It changed my life. It ended up defining my life. It became my passion. It is still my passion.”

 

Image result for karen levin omaha

Karen Levin

 

She cultivated folks who caught her vision and together they opened OCM as a mobile museum in 1976. Levin says the late Evie Zysman, a social worker and early childhood education advocate, led her to key supporters, including Jane Ford. The late Susan Thompson Buffett gave seed money and recommended attorney David Karnes, who legally incorporated OCM and became an ardent supporter with his late wife Liz. Their garage served as its storage unit and their ’74 Oldsmobile station wagon carted exhibits and supplies.

“I also did much of the corporate fundraising as we got started,” recalls Karnes. “We needed to introduce the OCM story and dream to all that would listen and it was a story many loved to hear and eventually supported,”

 

Image result for david karnes omaha

David Karnes

 

He and other early board members Susan Lebens, Jim Leuschen and John Birge were raising families and they bonded over developing a stimulating environment for their kids as well as kids community-wide.

Karnes was drawn to supporting a place where children could explore, touch, dress up, play in unstructured ways and be “in charge.” The Karnes brought their four daughters, all of whom he says “have a warm spot in their hearts for the museum and know how much it meant to me and Liz and how hard we worked to make it a success.” Those daughters live elsewhere now but “when they return with my grandkids,” he says. “they love to visit OCM.”

 

 

OCM’s old enough now that multiple generations enjoy it. Now remarried, Karnes is a parent again and he says his two new daughters “love the museum and visit often” with he and wife Kristine.

As a new grandparent, Susan Lebens is thrilled to be “back” at the museum.

John Birge, a principal architect with RNG, has fond memories of taking his then-young children to the museum and now that his kids are parents themselves he enjoys taking his grandchildren there.

 

Image result for john birge omaha

John Birge

 

“It’s just like de jeu watching my four grandchildren working their way through that whole building and listening them talk about all the experiences and what they like doing there,” Birge says. “It’s one generation later, but it’s the same idea.”

Board chairman Trent Demulling says, “It is the one place I go with my kids I’m never looking at my cellphone because it’s so fun to watch them play. They’re always looking back to see what you’re observing and looking for validation of what they’re doing or of what they’ve built.”

Veteran board member Sandy Parker says, “OCM was the place my boys could explore, get messy, imitate, imagine, inquire, play and just be kids. The boys and I used the museum a lot when they were young. I became president of the Guild  in the early ’90s, went on the Governing Board after that and have been on the board ever since. I’ve chaired the For the Kids Benefit and assisted in a couple of capital campaigns. Back in the day when there wasn’t much money Guild members would volunteer their time helping make and paint exhibits. We brought our kids. We all became friends – the moms and the kids.”

 

Image result for sandy parker omaha

Sandy Parker

 

Birge says the museum’s been “a catalyst for bringing young professionals into community leadership roles,” adding, “We were all together helping build this idea of a museum and we all went on to be very successful in doing cool things in Omaha in nontraditional ways.”

He says everybody involved wanted the museum to be world-class.

“We were a bunch of people who said, ‘We can do this.’ We kept getting great leadership in terms of board members as well as paid staff who were going to make it the biggest and best thing it could be.”

He’s proud OCM’s intertwined in “the fabric of the community.”

His daughter Alexis Boulos carries on family tradition as a volunteer (with the Guild) and engaged parent.

“I not only enjoyed the museum as a child I watched my parents volunteer their time and talents and now it’s so rewarding to give back myself and to watch my kids develop their creativity there.”

Dad and daughter marvel at how robust OCM is today. None of it could have happened without its founder. “Karen Levin was relentless in pushing that vision and she was not going to let go,” Birge says.

Monies that secured OCM’s initial footing came from the Dayton Hudson Foundation, whose grant helped pay for the first programs and exhibits. A  CETA (Comprehensive Employment and Training Act) grant paid for staff.

OCM went from itinerant displays in shopping malls, libraries, schools and at events to renting a small, makeshift space in the Omaha-Douglas County “connector” building. Then it moved to larger, repurposed  digs at 18th and St. Mary before occupying its present site, 500 South 20th Street, in the old McFadden Ford auto dealership.

 

Image result for lindy hoyer omaha

Lindy Hoyer

 

A decade after the museum formed Lindy Hoyer was a recent college graduate looking to apply her theater degree to a stage career when she took a job at OCM. Hired as a secretary, her skills proved better suited to facilitating play with kids in the exhibits area.

“My whole life I’ve been drawn to children and when I got the chance to see children engage and interact at the museum i just knew this is my passion,” says Hoyer, who found OCM a great place to grow herself professionally. “This organization was so young and fledgling that there were lots of new things to do and take charge of.”

After eight years she left for the Lincoln (Neb.) Children’s Museum before retuning in 2002. She found OCM in a state of physical fatigue.

“We had to make really tough decisions. Even though the audience grows up and grows out and there’s a new audience coming in every eight years, you have to keep the exhibits fresh. So often children’s museums get exhibits built and then the resources to replenish those over time never get accumulated and so things get worn down, broken

and over time that shows. The place was suffering desperately from that when I started back in 2002. We did some things to replenish,

but we were starting to get there again.”

Since making upgrades, targeting early childhood audiences and working with community partners to build exhibits OCM’s enjoyed an unbroken rise in attendance. The first of the community themed and sponsored exhibits, Construction Zone, in partnership with Kiewit, was a huge hit. Next came The Big Backyard and a slew of permanent displays by First National Bank. Walker Tire and Auto, Hy Vee. Omaha Steaks and Children’s Hospital & Medical Center.

Community and traveling exhibits, plus educational programs make OCM a thriving, financially stable destination place with huge buy-in.

“It’s nice to be running a nonprofit organization in a community where we can be bold and daring within the context of a strategy and a mission and work that backs that up,” Hoyer says. “We understand our audience and we listen to them and we take what they say seriously.”

Levin admires how far OCM’s come.

“We built a very strong foundation and then it just kind of blossomed. I think the community has always embraced the museum. Everyone owns it. Parents seek it out. It belongs to Omaha.”

She credits the leadership of Hoyer, the board and a staff that is “engaged, active, smart” for creating such a strong operation.

But OCM has challenges. Its landlocked downtown home is woefully short on office, storage and parking space. It also faces millions of dollars in deferred maintenance. Meanwhile, more visitors pour in.

Board chair Trent Demulling says for a recent master planning process “we evaluated what the museum could be and we did not constrain ourselves in dreaming big.” He adds, “Now we have to align that with reality in terms of what funding is available.”

 

Image result for trent demulling omaha

Trent Demulling

 

He and Hoyer say everything’s on the table – from expanding the present facility to finding a larger existing structure to building anew.

“I think management, the board and community leaders really need to think about what is Omaha willing to invest in the Omaha Children’s Museum,” Demulling says, “and what are the things we can get done in order to serve more people to give them an even better experience.”

Until a plan is finalized, OCM will continue stimulating children’s tactile senses and imagination in the same digs it’s occupied since 1989. Meanwhile, OCM celebrates 40 years of congaing minds and bodies.

“It’s an exciting time to be a part of the Omaha Children’s Museum,” says Hoyer. “The next step isn’t determined yet, but I know as long as we stay true to our mission to engage the imagination and spark excitement for learning, it’s going to be the right one. Whatever happens next will benefit generations to come.”

Visit http://www.ocm.org.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

 

 

SELECT OMAHA CHILDREN’S MUSEUM 40TH ANNIVERSARY EVENTS

In February OCM unveiled an interactive 40th anniversary art piece at the main entrance along with a vintage station wagon commemorating the museum’s start as a traveling program. The vehicle has a photo app visitors can use to share pictures on social media.

June 24 – Donor Celebration

This black tie event is for donors, past and present board members and others instrumental in the museum’s history. A cocktail hour will be held at the museum and a formal dinner and program will follow at Founders One Nine down the street hosted by longtime OCM supporters Mike and Susan Lebens.

June 25 – Birthday Celebration

Enjoy birthday cake and special activities throughout the day.

June 26 – Sundae Sunday

Celebrity scoopers will dole out ice cream sundaes to commemorate a popular activity from OCM’s past.

October 15 – ImagiNation

This 10,000 square foot traveling exhibit will feature elements from some of OCM’s most popular displays over its 40 year history.

SELECT OMAHA CHILDREN’S MUSEUM 40TH ANNIVERSARY EVENTS

In February OCM unveiled an interactive 40th anniversary art piece at the main entrance along with a vintage station wagon commemorating the museum’s start as a traveling program. The vehicle has a photo app visitors can use to share pictures on social media.

June 24 – Donor Celebration

This black tie event is for donors, past and present board members and others instrumental in the museum’s history. A cocktail hour will be held at the museum and a formal dinner and program will follow at Founders One Nine down the street hosted by longtime OCM supporters Mike and Susan Lebens.

June 25 – Birthday Celebration

Enjoy birthday cake and special activities throughout the day.

June 26 – Sundae Sunday

Celebrity scoopers will dole out ice cream sundaes to commemorate a popular activity from OCM’s past.

October 15 – ImagiNation

This 10,000 square foot traveling exhibit will feature elements from some of OCM’s most popular displays over its 40 year history.

Advertisements
  1. No comments yet.
  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: