Our town our state: Inside the Children’s Museum and Theatre of Maine.
On a typical winter day in Portland— pale sky, salt-powdered sidewalks, snowdrifts encased by ice—I make my first visit to the Children’s Museum and Theatre of Maine and, upon entering the building, find myself transported to a more colorful version of the city outside. Just beyond the gift shop, about half of the main floor, called Our Town, emulates Portland. I wander through exhibits that include a Whole Foods market not unlike Portland’s, an “Oakie Acres” farm representing Oakhurst Dairy on Forest Avenue, and, naturally, a lobster boat. The exhibit also includes a car shop, a bank, a post office, and a gigantic fire truck that a little boy is climbing into, taking the wheel. There is even a Be Well Center, where children are role- playing taking care of each other, using an iPad on the wall to record patient data.
“Our focus is on self-directed learning,” says director Suzanne Olson, when we meet in her top-floor office, whose skylights frame the adventures of seagulls outside. Olson, who was a schoolteacher and administrator for 28 years before joining the Children’s Museum in 2000, emphasizes how important it is that education be fun. The notion behind self-directed learning, explains Olson, is that confidence is nurtured through a person’s own explorations, which in turn reinforces an intrinsic desire to learn. This pedagogy extends to the theater program, which merged with the museum in 2008 “in part to allow more creative play in a more formal way.” Olson tells me that the Children’s Museum and Theatre of Maine is the only children’s museum in the United States that hosts full-scale theater productions that are both by and for children—five per year. The Circus Ship, a children’s book by Maine author Chris Van Dusen, was featured as the spring theater production throughout April, as adapted by Reba Short, the theater’s artistic director.
To “inspire discovery and imagination through exploration and play” is the mission of the Museum and Theatre—regardless of the socioeconomic status of its members. Inclusivity is crucial to Olson, who says, “We have a huge emphasis on making sure that all families can come whether they pay or not.” With around 2,000 member families total, over 140 are scholarship member families.
The Museum and Theatre also promotes inclusivity through an ongoing discussion of what it means to be a Mainer. The We Are Maine cultural exhibit on the second floor includes a kiosk that allows Maine children who have roots from countries around the world to record videos of themselves sharing family traditions—videos that can later be played as part of the exhibit.
In the culturally diverse oasis of Portland, Olson sees The Children’s Museum and Theatre of Maine as uniquely positioned with the opportunity to celebrate diversity in a state that can appear homogenous. As for what’s next, Olson says, “We’re about to be 40 years old. As I start thinking about the near future and the far future, I would say, what’s next is to continue the work of reaching out to all members of the community.” Then she adds, “The museum reflects the state. We value that, and we hear that from our visitors—that when they come here, they feel like it reflects the whole state.”