Illustrations courtesy of Miami Children's Museum and Jeremy Eaton
Illustrations courtesy of Miami Children's Museum and Jeremy Eaton

The Children's Museum, Inc.

Hey, kids, guess what? After four years without a home, your Miami Children's Museum may have found one, in a magical place called Watson Island. The board of directors hopes to begin building it next February with seven million dollars in public and private money it has collected over the past eight years. The directors' dream is to have the museum ready by August 2002. That's a long time to wait, especially since some of the advertisements, er, exhibits, already are raising eyebrows at children's museums in other cities. Wondering what's making those brows go up? Let's pretend the museum is open and take a tour! But first a little history.

Long ago in 1949, some nice people in Tallahassee were kind enough to sell Watson Island to the City of Miami for a grand total of ten dollars. Can you believe it? It's true, the entire island for ten dollars. They weren't totally nice, though, because if someone found a buried treasure on the island, like petroleum or minerals, those same people from the capital insisted that half of the riches should go back to Tallahassee (to a group with a funny name, the Trustees of the Internal Improvement Fund). Not only that, but they made a strict rule: The city “shall never sell or convey or lease” any part of Watson Island “to any private person, firm, or corporation for any private use or purpose, it being the intention of this restriction that the said lands shall be used solely for public purposes.” That's a lot of fancy adult talk, isn't it? It means they wanted the island to always be a place where you, your parents, and your grandparents could play.

Now if you haven't already learned this important lesson, you will: Some rules are made to be broken. And sure enough, in 1958 those people in Tallahassee broke their own rule. That's because they wanted to let some friendly folks from a private company -- the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company -- put a blimp on the island. The blimp idea was very clever because (1) everybody likes to look at a blimp, and (2) when everybody looks at the blimp, they see the name Goodyear on it. Then the next time they need to buy tires, there's a good chance they'll pick Goodyear. And you know what? It works. That's a little trick called corporate branding. Goodyear was a pioneer in that field. It looks as though the Miami Children's Museum is going to be one, too. But hold on. You'll find out more about this in a minute, once we begin our tour.

Many years later, in 1980, the people in Tallahassee broke their rule again. Why? Because they liked a dream some of your grandparents imagined for Watson Island. They wanted to turn it into an amusement park, like Disney World! And make pots of gold! But it turned out to be just a dream. Poof!

The friendly folks of the children's museum also had a dream go poof. Four years ago the museum had to leave its little home at the Bakery Centre shopping center because the mall was going to be torn down. The museum moved into another mall, then called the Miracle Center, for about a year, while the board of directors searched for another home. Meanwhile they got architects from a famous firm named Arquitectonica to design a permanent one; the architects came up with a two-level red, orange, and gray building with a curvy roof and something that looks like a huge upside-down glass ice-cream cone. After that the directors went in search of a place to put it. They fell in love with a site at a Metrorail stop right next to a pretty, quiet neighborhood called the Roads, with lots of old-fashioned houses. The directors loved the Metrorail spot, because it was near the Miami Science Museum, another place for children. The Miami City Commission also loved the idea and voted in favor of it. That might have been smart, since the museum's board included some pretty important people. People like Marianne Devine, a vice president at NationsBank (now Bank of America); Ann Pope, a manager for a shopping-mall builder called the Rouse Company; and Claudia Potamkin, the wife of a wealthy car dealer named Alan.

But the people who lived in the Roads hated the idea. They were afraid their neighborhood would not be pretty or quiet anymore because of all the noise and traffic caused by buses and vans and cars carrying hundreds of excited kids to the museum. Can you believe it? It's true. The Roads people were so mad, in fact, that they even hired lawyers and sued the children's museum to keep it out of their neighborhood. But the board of directors wasn't scared. Three of its members -- Sam Terilli, Scott Leeds, and Richard Lampen -- also were lawyers. And they hired some other attorneys from a powerful law firm named Greenberg Traurig.

At least they weren't scared for a while. This past March these nice lawyers advised their fellow board members to avoid the fight with the angry Roads people and look for another site. They looked at Bicentennial Park downtown and liked what they saw. The park is on the waterfront and close to a Metromover stop, so kids whose parents don't have cars can get there easily. But other groups with big plans wanted to move into Bicentennial Park, too. Like the Florida Marlins baseball team, whose president, John Henry, insists on building a stadium right on top of one of the last public parks on Biscayne Bay! Can you believe it?

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.

The branding issue reminds Lord of a recent controversy at the famous Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, whose curators canceled an exhibition of clothing by a famous French fashion designer. The curators thought the corporate sponsor wanted too much control over the exhibition. Lord wonders, “Is the issue of a Publix supermarket any different from walking into the Metropolitan Museum of Art and seeing a Coco Chanel exhibition that's sponsored by Chanel perfume?” Yes, she thinks. Why? “Children really should be protected from advertising, above all in places that are in the not-for-profit sector,” she says. “And I think that's a very strong argument. I think children's museums should be sensitive to it. I actually think it's a huge issue.”

Deborah Spiegelman disagrees. “I really don't see it as any different than the 5K run or the different special events around our town that are sponsored by corporate sponsors,” she says. “Corporate sponsorship has not led by any means the content of the museum,” she insists. “The content was set forth, and then, following the plans ... I went out and sought sponsors for each of the areas.”

But enough of this yucky talk. Come on, let's check out another exhibit. Look! There's the Bank of America!

Listen up, kids. Bobby, hush. For a long time, the Bank of America exhibit was going to be named the NationsBank exhibit. But in 1998 NationsBank merged with a bank called BankAmerica, and they decided to name the bigger bank the Bank of America. You may have noticed recently that the name on the skyscraper that glows with pretty colors at night recently changed from NationsBank to Bank of America. The company had to change names at all of its buildings across the nation. Pretty confusing, huh? So Bank of America recently launched a $100-million advertising campaign to make people notice the new brand name. That's a lot of money. We hope they have plenty of it in the bank! (They should, because in July the bank's executives decided to fire about 10,000 employees all across the country.)

Traditionally bankers have been very generous to museums in the United States. “We've had strong support from banks in our community,” says Deb Turner, who raises money for the Indianapolis Children's Museum, which was founded in 1925 and is one of the oldest in the nation. But Turner likes to make sure the bank's name is presented in a “tasteful” manner. Remember Mrs. Lord's little plaque idea? Right on!

The goal of the Bank of America installation here, complete with ATMs and tellers, is to “teach children about money and exchange,” according to a museum newsletter. But isn't another kind of transaction taking place here, too? Some people think so. Bobby and Shalonda, shhh! This includes you. “What happens is that people want to do big things and they need money, and their mind first goes to how can they get it without thinking about what are they giving away in exchange for it,” says University of Miami art professor Paula Harper. The museums want to do big things, too, and the government isn't giving away much money anymore. But Harper believes there's too much reliance on corporate money. “You make a choice about which way you're going to go. If you choose not to accept corporate money, then you need more public funding and you need to be less ambitious in your plans.” A less ambitious children's museum without corporate exhibits could be even more creative, she thinks, “instead of something commercialized and ordinary.” Harper believes more and more people are fed up with seeing corporate logos all over public spaces. If that's true, your children's museum will be attracting attention for years to come!

“Our culture has grown increasingly comfortable with the idea that, beyond parents, the top responsibility for fostering children's imaginations now lies with corporations, not communities,” says James MacKinnon, who monitors advertising aimed at kids for Adbusters magazine.

The nonprofit Association of Youth Museums (AYM) -- the industry's largest trade group with 200 member museums, including Miami's -- has yet to develop guidelines on corporate sponsorship. But it might have to soon. “It's an issue that every museum needs to look at and have tremendous clarity about,” comments Lou Casagrande, is president of the association and director of the 90-year-old Boston Children's Museum. “It's not something that we should back into. It should be something we should be very clearly deciding on.” He thinks exhibits like Publix and Bank of America's planned by the Miami Children's Museum would be controversial in Boston. “But that doesn't mean they're wrong,” he adds. “I think it really depends on where a community is going with the way they want to grow and [direct] their children.”

One of the ways in which the Boston Children's Museum knows where its community is going is by giving representatives of nonprofit community-service organizations a strong presence on its board of trustees. About a third of its 32 trustees are from such groups. “They help us stay focused on the mission,” says Casagrande.

But this is Miami, kids. There are no nonprofit community service groups on the eighteen-member board, but lots of private businesses are, including Farm Stores, Xerox, and Baptist Health Systems.

Casagrande says the AYM does takes a firm stand against sponsorship from liquor and tobacco companies. Spiegelman says she, too, has drawn a line in the corporate sand. “I had a fast-food chain that wanted to go into the museum,” she relates. “They were selling me on the [idea that] fast food has nutritional value, it has nutritional content. [They said], “We can tell a great story.' Spiegelman had to put her foot down. “It wasn't part of the mission of the museum and the script of the museum and the educational component.” Which fast-food chain? She wants to keep it a secret! “I don't feel comfortable saying,” she says.

There is a surprise at the Port of Miami exhibit that's no secret, though. It's on the second floor. Time to escape from Kidscape Village. Let's go!

The Port of Miami exhibit probably is the -- how do you young people say it these days? -- baddest of them all. For example, it's where you'll meet a fish called Irony. But first, why don't we review what you've learned about corporate branding. And what better place to do it than on the -- surprise! -- Carnival cruise ship. Here's how the directors describe the exhibit in an issue of their newsletter: “The Port of Miami [exhibit] -- a place of water-based commerce, a hub of trade, and an important embarkation point for travel and adventure -- will serve as the backdrop for multicultural exhibits. Visitors will be able to explore a giant Carnival cruise ship (yes, you can climb inside!).”

Like Publix, Carnival has a monopoly at this port (unlike the real Port of Miami, which you can see, once you leave the museum and look out across the channel to the south). Know how you can thank Carnival for the fun ship? Ask your parents to take you on a real Carnival cruise adventure! They're not that expensive, really.

One reason why cruises are not very expensive is because Carnival pays a lot of its cruise-ship employees very little for their hard work. You can check out the engine room in this exhibit, but we dare you to find any of those employees. Many of them come from poor foreign countries and don't see their own little boys and girls for months at a time. Did you know these workers often labor fifteen hours a day, seven days a week? They're also forbidden from starting a union, which is sort of like a student council, to fight for better working conditions, because if they did, they would get fired. So watch your step while you're in the pretend-job component of this exhibit. If you make believe you're a janitor trying to organize a union, you might get thrown right off the ship and flown straight to Saint Vincent!

Maybe it's time to walk down the gangplank to the gantry crane activity, another part of the Port of Miami exhibit. You may have seen real gantry cranes towering in the sky above the real port, where workers use them to lift cargo containers on and off ships. You can't get anywhere near those cranes (because the port workers there are allowed to have a union), but here at the exhibit, you can operate miniature ones. It looks like fun but think twice about making it a career. It gets awfully tedious!

You've probably been wondering about that fish with the funny name. Irony is back down on the first level, swimming around beneath the hull of the cruise ship at the Port of Miami environmental reef exhibit. When you get there, can you spot her? She could be the one that looks a little sick because even the cleanest cruise ship still pollutes a lot. Just think of all that soapy water draining from the hundreds of sinks and showers onboard. (Carnival calls this gray water.) Not to mention the toilets. (Carnival calls this sewage.) Where do you think Carnival empties all that stuff? Yep, in the ocean. Guess where all the cargo ships that go in and out of the Port of Miami dump theirs, too?

If you ask the museum attendants to find Irony in the environmental reef exhibit, they'll probably look at you as if you're crazy. But she's there all right. When you get home, ask your parents to look up her name in the dictionary. It means “incongruity between what might be expected and what actually occurs.”

Don't worry if it's a little hard for a kid to grasp. But educators like Paula Harper think adults should know better. “Children are least able to resist all of these blandishments,” she says. “And they're least able to understand that what's in front of them is a pretty mixed message that's teaching them to respect or to accept certain corporate presences, but without having the awareness to realize who's doing it and why. There's a motive there that's not really for their benefit but for the benefit of the image of the corporation.”

“I think that we are delivering many, many valuable educational messages to children,” Spiegelman offers. But she admits the museum also is delivering other messages. “We want to be sensitive to what the donor wants,” she adds.

With any luck corporate brands will not hover over the “Ports of Call” exhibit that, according to the museum's description, “will focus on the people, music, art, clothing, food, celebrations, and traditions of various cultures.” Let's hope their adults don't have this obsession with branding!

We'll check out one more exhibit: the arts and communications gallery. Finally it looks as though you'll be able to use your own imagination. You can create works of art and record music and videos. You can even pretend you're a TV reporter. But not now. It's time to leave the Potamkin Building (the name the board has given the museum complex in honor of the generous car dealer). Because those of you who have to take a bus off the island could have a very long wait. Oh look, Bobby and Shalonda have gotten into the paints. What's that you've drawn? A cruise ship? How nice.

Well, thank you for coming along, kids. We hope our tour has proved educational. See? There is more to this place than meets the eye. Let's review, just once more. “The three central themes of the museum are community, communication, and culture,” says Deborah Spiegelman. But you've learned there are a few others that start with C -- like corporations, consumerism, and commercialism. Here's another: coup. The American Heritage College Dictionary defines a coup as “a brilliantly executed stratagem; a masterstroke.” Can you say corporate public-relations coup? Ask your mom to say it fast ten times on the way home.


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >