By Trevor Bach
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By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
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The children's museum directors realized there probably was going to be a big fight over the stadium, too. And after four years of being homeless, they were getting impatient. So in July, when the Miami City Commission decided to offer them an acre on Watson Island, they jumped for joy. Now they're hoping the nice folks in Tallahassee will bend the rules a little once again and decide that a private museum will fulfill a “public purpose.”
The museum directors think it will. “A children's museum really gives a child an opportunity, with his or her family, to explore the big world out there and experience everything in a hands-on interactive-learning environment,” says interim executive director Deborah Spiegelman. “And our museum will give children that opportunity, starting as early as a few months old.” You wouldn't believe how much time and money adults -- including those who are planning the children's museum -- spend figuring out ways to thrill and shape your young, impressionable minds. “We've had focus groups, we've had studies, we did a tremendous amount of preplanning as to what children and families in our communities wanted in the children's museum,” Spiegelman says.
So let's take a look at some of the things the board of directors thought you might want at the children's museum. But watch out: There's more to this place than meets the eye!
Come on in, kids. Bobby and Shalonda, hurry up! Okay, our exploration begins here in this big, glass, upside-down cone. It symbolizes wind. Woooosh! Walk down the long hallway to a giant sandcastle, built by a local artist, Carlos Alves. “It's whimsical, it's fun, it's Florida, it's magical,” explains Spiegelman. “It's our signature piece.” Hey, don't kick it, you two. It's really made of cementlike materials. Somewhere inside the piece you'll find a stairway going up, and then a slide. Down you go! “It gets the kids kind of fired up and ready for the next level of excitement,” Spiegelman adds. And out you come. You're in Kidscape Village. Look, there's a Publix!
“Kids love going shopping,” Spiegelman says. “And they love having a minisupermarket and playing Mommy and Daddy and getting the milk.” In this realistic Publix supermarket, you'll get to pretend you're a Publix cashier, a Publix stock-room employee, and other fun Publix personnel. You'll also learn about nutrition and where food comes from. “We're taking the learning to a whole new level,” Spiegelman explains. For example, she elaborates, “You'll get an introduction to the aquaculture, agriculture, and dairy industries. We're letting people understand that the milk that's in my refrigerator didn't just come from the supermarket shelf. The milk came from a cow. And milk is great, but milk is also one of the ingredients in many other products. And kids will get the opportunity to understand that ice cream came from milk. And, “How do I make ice cream?'” Kind of like the things you learn at school!
Now it's time for a lesson about something you probably haven't learned at school. It's called corporate branding. It sounds complicated but it's simple. And it's all the rage these days. First, a company has a brand, such as Publix. A brand really is just a name, but it's a name the company's owners want you to remember. In the olden days, ranchers branded their cattle so they wouldn't get them mixed up with other ranchers' cattle. A company has a brand so consumers won't get it mixed up with other companies' brands. Not only that, but if more people see the brand, more will remember it when they go shopping. Remember the Goodyear blimp? Some companies want to get their brands everywhere, even inside a children's museum.
Also, the owners hope you'll forget all about other companies' brands. Do you wonder why there's no Winn-Dixie or Milam's or Wild Oats at Kidscape Village? That's because these companies didn't give any money to the museum. Publix gave the museum about $600,000. So, to thank the people at Publix for being so nice, the museum let Publix be the only supermarket in the village. (That's called a monopoly.) “It's an opportunity for the corporation to get a return on their sponsorship and on their participation,” says Spiegelman. In other words Publix gets publicity. And you get to play. The Publix way! If you have a lot of fun, then the next time Mommy and Daddy take you grocery shopping, where will you want to go? Publix, right?
Not everyone thinks corporate branding in children's museums is cool, however. Know what a smart city staffer familiar with the children museum's use of branding calls it? “Pretty shocking,” that's what. Then the clever staffer offered a keen observation: “I think it's pretty obvious that [the corporate support] isn't just about getting a gold star.”
Gail Lord,an internationally respected museum planner and author, says most children's museums keep corporate brands under control. “This is a time when you have so much effort being put into influencing young children, who can then influence parents and their purchasing,” she observes. “And I think it's important that children's museums do take a stand.” Lord, whose Toronto-based company has planned exhibitions for dozens of museums throughout Europe and North America, adds: “A plaque or a tasteful way of identifying who a sponsor is needs to be distinguished from putting brand names or corporate names into the exhibition itself.” What she means is that a little sign on the wall will do the trick.