SALT LAKE CITY — The Children’s Museum of Utah opened its doors in 1983 at a humble, 12,000-square-foot exhibit space in the Wasatch Springs Building on Beck Street in Salt Lake City, where it paid $1 per year in rent.
Despite community support, a 1993 article from the Deseret News noted the first decade wasn’t easy for the museum. It was forced to close twice because of lack of funding.
"It's exciting, but it takes time for the concept of a children's museum to build and grow,” former Utah first lady Norma Matheson said in 1993.
Twenty-five years later, Matheson’s statement has proven to be prophetic. Since its formation, the Children’s Museum of Utah — now called the Discovery Gateway Children’s Museum — has outgrown the old exhibit space, moved to a prime location in The Gateway mall and served 6.3 million people.
This year, which marks 40 years since the museum’s incorporation, the board of directors is celebrating the museum’s milestones while looking to the future.
According to Laurie Hopkins, the museum’s executive director, the idea for the Children’s Museum of Utah was born when a Utah woman named Paulette Stevens and her husband visited Boston Children’s Museum, which, according to its website, opened in 1913.
“They thought, ‘Oh, we need something like this in Utah,’” Hopkins said. “And so they decided to engage the community here in Salt Lake City to come up with the idea of a children's museum here.”
It took a few years for the project to get off the ground, but founders incorporated it as a nonprofit in 1978 and opened its doors in 1983 with help from Salt Lake City, which rented the property for only $1 per year.
The museum started with what Hopkins called “a few really solid exhibits,” like the cockpit of a Boeing 727, a saber-toothed tiger skeleton, a honeybee hive, a sight and sound display and a traveling exhibit from the Museum of Holography in New York. Many of these exhibits are still on display at the museum’s new location.
“I think there was a realization from the board back in the late '90s that we just didn't have enough room to do all we wanted to do as a museum,” Hopkins said. “And so once again, it was a community effort and a push.”
In 2002, Salt Lake County residents voted “yes” on Proposition 2, which authorized the county to grant $15 million to purchase a new building for the Children’s Museum of Utah at The Gateway. Three years later, in 2005, construction began, and the new museum opened in September 2006, renamed the Discovery Gateway Children’s Museum.
The new location at The Gateway provided the museum with 60,000 square feet, about six times the size of the previous exhibit space. With more space came more exhibits and more visitors.
“When we left (the first location), we had a pretty robust membership base and pretty dedicated families who followed up to the new location,” said Tina Bagley, who has been involved with the museum’s board of directors for more than a decade. “It made the transition easy because we already had people who loved us for our hands-on programming. We just continued to grow from that location, and then having new exhibits was an opportunity to just offer more.”
According to Hopkins, of the 6.3 million people the museum has served in the past 40 years, 4 million of them have been since the museum’s move to The Gateway.
Hopkins said that over the past three years, the museum has worked to revitalize their exhibits and programming, work made possible through $1.6 million raised through a rolling capital campaign. They have used the money to add or upgrade six exhibits, host three traveling exhibits and translate the museum’s materials into Spanish.
“We needed that money to really refresh the museum and add to it,” Hopkins said. “Things have changed over the years with education, so we've been able to really upgrade all of our educational cues.”
In recent years, the museum has also built upon its several community outreach programs, which serve hundreds of thousands of children each year.
In 1996, the museum started taking science learning to fifth-grade classrooms throughout the state, a project that extended to kindergarten classrooms in 2015. Although the project started with visiting just 38 schools, the museum has expanded the program to reach 631 schools each year — almost all the elementary and charter schools in the state of Utah.
The museum also offers an after-school enrichment program with two elementary schools in the Salt Lake City School District. The program will expand to five more schools in the coming year.
“Once a month, we go on site to these after-school programs and provide an ‘Engineering in Elementary’ unit of science education, and then once a month they come to the museum to have an after-school field trip,” Hopkins said.
Besides formal programs, the museum also attends arts festivals and STEM nights for science, technology, engineering and math education.
“Many studies in early childhood education have shown that the earlier you start working with your children in fun ways and in informal ways to teach them concepts like literacy or math or science … it has shown that they perform better in formal educational settings,” Hopkins said. “So for us, that's the crux of it. It's this idea of preparing children for what's to come in their school life.”
Looking to the future
Although the Discovery Gateway Children’s Museum has several milestones to celebrate this year, they are focused on the future.
“We have some strategic goals to really become one of the foremost children's museums in the West, and even in the country,” Bagley said. “A place, when people come to Salt Lake City, they want to come to the museum as a destination.”
According to Hopkins, the museum’s principal goals within the next three years are to secure sustainable funding and expand the museum’s programs to a broader demographic.6 comments on this story
“We really want to continue to provide educational experiences for children in generations to come,” Hopkins said. “Forty years is a wonderful mark to hit. But we need to be hitting 50 and 75 and 100.”
If you go …
What: Discovery Gateway Children’s Museum 40th Bee-Day Bash Fundraiser
When: Saturday, Oct. 6, 6:30-9 p.m.
Where: Discovery Gateway Children’s Museum, 444 W. 100 South
How much: $40 for adults, $20 for children and $175 for a family of six