Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

All right, call it a museum but serve coffee

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It has been many years, mercifully, since I have needed to patronize the Manitoba Children's Museum.

Still, it was with some nostalgia that I read my colleague Alison Mayes' report the other day about the $10-million reno The Forks institution is undertaking.

Personally, I have fonder memories of the museum's original location on Pacific Avenue. Yes, it was a fraction of the size (and thus a tad claustrophobic).

But thanks to its narrow central hallway, you could park yourself at the front end and chat with another parent without worrying that your kid would somehow escape your eagle eye and run out the front door into traffic.

The new place, now 16 years old (!), is so much bigger that you actually have to pay attention to what your pint-sized charges are up to.

Admission these days is $7 a kid, and each parent is another $6.75. For that kind of cash, for what is essentially a giant rec room, you'd think you could get complimentary supervision. Apparently not. This is progress?

Maybe I'm being unreasonable. I confess to carrying a grudge against the children's museum for all these years, largely because they have ignored two of my eminently reasonable suggestions for improvement.

The first was to install a coffee bar for parents. When I first columnized about this, Starbucks and Tim Hortons were barely a twinkle in any entrepreneur's eye.

In a perfect world, of course, the museum would have Las Vegas-style wait staff (today's fathers still appreciate a skimpy costume) selling gin and tonics.

Goodness knows, your average 21st-century helicopter parent needs a strong drink to survive the disappointment of his offspring not making the grade-school cut-off for Harvard Medical School.

But when I dropped into the museum Thursday afternoon (mostly to see what had changed since my day), the strongest beverage on offer in the lunchroom's drink dispensing machines was a disgustingly sweet strawberry milk.

My other big suggestion was to change the name. It should be something more reflective of its clientele's brow level. "Forks Funland" would work. How about "Prairie Playroom" or "Kids R Active"?

Any of these would be more honest. After all, it is not really a museum. It is an activity centre. And granted, there was lots of activity taking place there Thursday afternoon, with toddlers making things out of paper cups, dashing through the aisles of the diesel train 9161 and playing with gravel and water in the giant stainless steel bathtub.

The dictionary defines museum this way: "A building used for storing and exhibiting objects of historical, scientific or cultural interest."

But when at the Manitoba Children's Museum did you last see, say, an eight-year-old from the 17th century, embalmed in formaldehyde and exhibited in a fancy glass case.

"Look at how well-dressed that one is," you might remark upon viewing it.

Let's not kid ourselves. We know the real reason it has to be called a museum.

You aren't going to attract public funding or even a volunteer board to a non-profit institution that does not play up its supposed higher purposes.

For the record, in 2009 the children's museum received $221,000 of its $1.5-million in revenues from public subsidy. Nearly $500,000 came from admissions, $90,000 from memberships and $140,000 from the toy, er, gift shop.

I have no issue with the their big makeover and expansion.In the modern economy, they must grow or die.

As well, the children's museum must not avoid looking shabby beside that other museum (which also may or may not fit the dictionary definition of a museum) rising at The Forks.

Meanwhile, I'm crossing my fingers regarding the proposed new cafeteria area. Someday soon I hope to have a grandchild to take on outings, and I'd love to relax with a cup of coffee.

morley.walker@freepress.mb.ca.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 4, 2010 C8

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