How to Start a Children's Museum

by Fraser Sherman - Updated September 26, 2017
Girl observing machine

You won't open a new children's museum overnight. The Association of Children's Museums says it takes an average five years of planning to open a children's museum. During that time, you have to find a location, prepare your exhibits, recruit volunteers and incorporate as a nonprofit. While nonprofit status isn't mandatory, the association says most museums operate as nonprofits, relying on grants and donations as the main sources of funding.

Make a Study

The association recommends that before doing anything you conduct a feasibility study examining your demographics, income and interests to see whether a children's museum is likely to succeed. A new museum is a kind of small business, and like other businesses it can fail. A feasibility study will give you a sense of whether your community is likely to support your dream. The website Museum Planner suggests you also check out established children's museums to find out how they operate, how much they charge visitors and what their exhibits are like.

Recruit Volunteers

If you seek to become a nonprofit, you'll need a board of directors. The board helps define the museum's mission, crafts strategies to raise money and draw visitors, and oversees the regular staff and volunteers. You need a board that believes in your mission, has good management skills and has the connections to promote the museum and solicit donations. You'll also need people to staff the museum, working with kids, guiding people around, opening and closing and taking tickets.

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Exhibit Ideas

The ideal children's museum has exhibits that appeal to children of different ages while not boring parents to tears. Interactive exhibits are staple tools. An art museum can have art projects, a natural history museum can have a small petting area, and any kind of museum can have an electronic, brightly flashing quiz-game. Some large, established museums have a department dedicated to coming up with exhibition ideas. Small museums rent or buy displays from commercial exhibit firms or pay exhibit designers to create them.

Find a Location

Your research and your feasibility study should give you an idea of how much exhibit space you want. Ideally, your building is double that size. That gives you space for maintenance and storage, business offices and for work on new exhibits. Once you have the size, look for a location that you can afford. After the first year, attendance often drops 20 to 30 percent, which affects admission fee revenue, museum souvenirs, and cafeteria income if you have one. It's important to keep that in mind when pricing potential locations.

Grants and Donations

Grants can go a long way toward covering some of your costs. The Association of Children's Museums makes a list of grant opportunities for children's museums available on its website. Encouraging museum visitors and people in your community to donate can provide another important funding stream. More than 33 percent of museum income comes from donations. A little over 25 percent comes from earned income -- admissions, gift-shop sales and the like.

About the Author

A graduate of Oberlin College, Fraser Sherman began writing in 1981. Since then he's researched and written newspaper and magazine stories on city government, court cases, business, real estate and finance, the uses of new technologies and film history. Sherman has worked for more than a decade as a newspaper reporter, and his magazine articles have been published in "Newsweek," "Air & Space," "Backpacker" and "Boys' Life." Sherman is also the author of three film reference books, with a fourth currently under way.

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