PORTLAND — It’s big and beautiful, light-filled, and colorful. The new Children’s Museum & Theatre of Maine is a sheer delight and guaranteed to put a smile on your face (and teach you a thing or two), no matter your age.
The three-floor, 30,000-square-foot facility, designed by Bruner/Cott Architects of Boston and located in the emerging Thompson’s Point waterfront area in Portland, opened June 24, and is expected to draw more than 200,000 visitors annually. More than $15 million was raised for the new museum (surpassing the initial goal of $14 million), which showcases the work of national exhibit designers and local artisans.
The fun begins before you even open the Museum & Theatre doors. There’s a half-acre outdoor space that includes a large picnic area overlooking Fore River, a labyrinth, and the fenced-in Outdoor Adventure area, where you can climb, dig, and build with natural materials. There’s also a teaching garden, a collaboration with Maine Audubon featuring indigenous Maine plants.
Welcome! The bright, multicolored lobby has a three-dimensional climbing structure with different levels for different ages, like a toddler crawl-through and a viewing tower for those who make it to the top. It also has an accessible transfer platform.
“A lot of attention was focused on accessibility,” says Julie Butcher Pezzino, executive director. “Our designers said we challenged them to make the museum as accessible and multigenerational as possible. We’ve taken it to new levels.”
Also, on the first floor is Maddy’s Theatre, a new state-of-the-art facility, which is now home to the oldest, continuously operating children’s theater program in the country. It has 89 fixed seats, and additional space for those who use wheelchairs. There’s a tech booth where older children can get involved with the behind-the-scenes mechanics of production, and an observation viewing gallery where sensitive visitors can control sight and sound levels. The theaters produce three, family-friendly, professional actor shows this summer through mid-October.
Role playing takes center stage on the second floor in Our Neighborhood, where you can climb aboard the Downeaster train, listen to incoming pilots in the traffic control center, slide down the pole in the fire truck, and cook and sell lobster at the lobster shack. Also, on the second floor is the Lunder Arts & Culture Gallery, with the centerpiece exhibit, developed in partnership with the Indigo Arts Alliance, featuring Maine author Ashley Bryan’s “Beautiful Blackbird” story, “We love the message of this beautiful folktale, that Black is beautiful and the importance of appreciating our differences,” says Pezzino.
Visitors are invited to “walk into the book.” Large fabric book pages are on display, with gesture animation software. In other words, wave your hands and the birds in the story interact with you. Other components include a Share Your Story kiosk, where children are encouraged to record their own story about what makes them special, an exhibit of art from children’s books, and a demonstration kitchen. “Food plays such a role in celebrating diversity and different cultures that this commercial demonstration kitchen was very important to us,” says Pezzino.
The additional large MakerSpace exhibit on the second floor encourages kids to design and create whatever is on their mind. “I want to make a bird house, a rocket, a chair, a dress … whatever it is we’ll have facilitators on hand to help them create it,” says Pezzino. “It’s going to be a very messy, make-your-own space.”
The entire 10,000-square-foot third floor is the museum’s Science Center, devoted to STEM education. A six-sided, 10-foot-tall sculpture features pneumatic balls, where visitors can learn to see and predict patterns and experiment with projection. There are modular track sections for older siblings to use to engineer roadways, and a large light display, resembling a giant Lite Bright toy, where you can create images by moving tubes of light. There are light tables that respond to touch, a shadow play area, and a pinhole camera that allows you to see what’s happening outside the building. At the animation station, kids (and adults!) can experiment with making their own movies using a variety of background scenes and props.
The one-of-a-kind periscopic camera obscura was the only thing that the museum moved from its former location. You can turn and focus the camera 360 degrees for views across Portland. “We’ve had visitors who come just for this,” says Pezzino. “It’s quite rare.”
“Ready for the Aquarium?” Pezzino asked us on a preview visit. This area features seven different ecological habitats from the mountains to the sea, with viewing and touch tanks filled with native Maine species. Aquarists will be on hand to bring some of the species out for a closer look (think: turtles and frogs). Off to the side is the IDEXX STEM Learning Hub where kids can role play being a veterinarian and learn about different animal species and how to keep pets healthy.
One of our favorite areas was Go With the Flow, a giant, Willy Wonka-style water exhibit. Don raincoats and grab one of the towels; you’re going to get wet. You can turn and twist vessels to fill and dump water, balance balls on water squirts, create dams with Legos and push buttons to form waterfalls and make things move. It’s a gorgeous, kaleidoscopic space, with a geometric mural created by Maine artist Rachel Gloria Adams, who has exhibited her artwork throughout New England. Adams is one of several Maine artists who created paintings and murals featured in the new museum.
The Museum & Theatre is located right off I-295, near the Portland Transportation Center, in the budding Thompson’s Point community. Here’s a suggestion: Take the Amtrak train to Portland and grab a coffee at the Rwanda Bean before visiting the museum. Have lunch and a beverage at Bissell Brothers Brewery or grab picnic provisions from Rosemont Market & Bakery (opening soon). And maybe return to the Museum & Theatre for a theater performance before boarding the train back to Boston.
250 Thompson’s Point Road, Portland, Maine. 207-828-1234, www.kitetails.org. Tickets must be reserved, $15, babies 17 months and under free; check website for discounts.
Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at email@example.com