Since its founding four years ago, the Hanson Children’s Museum has had a dedicated volunteer staff and a mission to entertain and engage young people with exhibits about their nation’s past.
What the fledgling museum has lacked is a place to call its own. So the organization has had to travel to schools, libraries, and child care centers to present its programs.
That nomadic existence for the museum has come to an end – at least for now. Since last month, the museum has been operating from a vacant storefront in the Hanover Mall, taking advantage of the mall’s offer to occupy the 3,100-square-foot space rent-free for three months.
The arrangement is temporary, but the museum hopes to raise the money that would enable it to lease the mall site after the rent-free period expires in late November.
“It feels like we finally have a home now where people can come to us rather than us taking the exhibits on the road,” said Debbie Paquette, the volunteer lead teacher for the museum. “It’s really nice to see people coming back week after week to visit the museum.”
Located in the Sears wing of the mall, the museum is open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and charges $3 for admission. On Sundays, the museum makes the space available for private functions.
“It’s exciting, because we have an opportunity that would not have been presented to us elsewhere,” said Juvelyn Hartweg, founder and executive director of the museum. “We can have people visit us as opposed to being a thought in cyberspace or on a piece of paper.”
While a shopping mall might seem an unlikely venue for a children’s museum, Hartweg noted that the Cape Cod Children’s Museum, now in Mashpee, began in the Falmouth Mall.
“When you think about it, it’s a melting pot. So many people come through the mall in the midst of doing business, and it’s a public space,” she said.
Jeanne Hesketh, marketing specialist for the Hanover Mall, sees the children’s museum as a nice complement to the retail tenants.
“The Hanson Children’s Museum has some very different and interesting events that are focused on children and families, which is the core of people that come to our mall,” she said.
Hesketh said the current arrangement is a natural extension of an evolving relationship between the two groups. Over the past few years, the museum has presented or joined special events at the mall.
The museum was begun in 2009 by Hartweg, 35, who was a teacher in the Whitman-Hanson public schools and the South Shore Charter Public School, in Norwell.
A mother of three, Hartweg first dreamed of starting a museum about a decade ago, when she was struck by the dearth of organized play spaces for children in her area, and recalled her enjoyment visiting the now closed Needham Children’s Museum when she was taking care of a child as a nanny during college.
The museum was incorporated as a nonprofit in September 2009 and began taking exhibits on the road. In 2010, the group leased part of an old warehouse in south Hanson, with the intention of renovating it to serve as the home of the museum.
That plan was dropped in the fall of 2011 when it became clear the group could not raise the needed funds and had to vacate its space in the warehouse.
Despite the setback, the museum continued to travel around the area to present its exhibits, which it stored in a board member’s barn and a storage pod.
Six months ago, the mall invited the museum to showcase its exhibits in an empty store window. Hartweg asked if the museum might operate out of the storefront space. Mall officials were agreeable, but Hartweg said the museum couldn’t afford the lease they offered. In August, the mall proposed the current arrangement, and the museum accepted.
Noting that there are only two other children’s museums in the region — the Children’s Museum in Easton, and Cape Cod Children’s Museum — and none in Plymouth County, Hartweg said the Hanson Children’s Museum fills a need.
She said the intent of the museum is to serve all of Plymouth County, a mission that might lead it to adopt a new name that reflects a larger area.
A distinct feature of the museum, and one the group does not plan to change, is its focus on American history. Hartweg said the museum needed a theme to set it apart, and history is “something I cherished myself, so I wanted to share that.”
One constraint the museum faces at the mall is limited space. The warehouse space was about 10,000 square feet, enough to house all 17 of the museum’s planned American history-related exhibits. The mall store has only enough room for about five exhibits.
But the museum hopes to make the best use of the area. Currently, it is showing four exhibits — the Wild Wild West, the Native American Experience, America’s Road to Freedom, and the Cranberry Festival — and plans to show others on a rotating basis.
A number of regular programs are offered, including story times each weekday morning. There has also been a busy lineup of special programs, from a pizza-making party to a “Mom and Tots Club” session last week that it hopes to make a regular event.
While realistic about the financial hurdles, Hartweg said the group is hopeful that having a long-term location will bolster its chances of landing grants.
“This may offer opportunities that weren’t available to us before,” she said. Until now, “every other foundation would ask, ‘Are you open?’ That was the number one question. Now, we can say ‘Yes we are, and these are the programs we offer families.’ ”
John Laidler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.