The Minnesota Children’s Museum’s Barbara Hahn talks about a $30 million makeover that begs to be touched

Interview by Joel Hoekstra

Little hands can take a toll. After more than two decades of use, the Minnesota Children’s Museum—where touching is encouraged and hands-on learning is expected—needed renovation. The 65,000-square-foot facility, located in downtown St. Paul, had seen visitor traffic grow significantly since its opening in 1995. So, earlier this year, with guidance from the Minneapolis architecture firm MSR Design, the museum closed and underwent a $30 million overhaul that moved administrative offices, added a café, installed an additional elevator, and reconfigured exhibit space to expand and enhance the museum’s mission to spark learning through play.

Architecture MN recently talked with Barbara Hahn, the Minnesota Children’s Museum’s vice president of learning innovation, about museum design, early childhood education, and how exhibits and architecture interact in the revamped facility.


What drove the renovation?
The building was more than 20 years old, so things were getting a little tired. When we opened in 1995, we had about 300,000 visitors annually, and now we average about 450,000 a year. We were already feeling kind of cramped, and we knew that things were only going to get busier. It was time for a refresh.

What kinds of updates were needed?
We felt that the flow of the museum needed to be adjusted. The box office was on the first floor, but we discovered that 80 percent of our visitors entered through the skyway on the second floor. (It connects to parking ramps and other downtown buildings.) They had to go downstairs to check in—and then back upstairs because there were no galleries or exhibits on the first floor. We also needed more bathrooms and places for people to sit. We didn’t have a café. There were numerous logistical issues we wanted to address.

Talk about the design process for the renovation.
Ultimately, the building needs to enhance the core mission of the museum, which is sparking children’s learning through play. How does the design provide for that or support that goal? The addition and expansion was an opportunity to rethink everything, so we not only rethought the really practical considerations, like flow and access and all that; we also thought about how we can best support the open-ended play experiences that we want for our visitors.

What changes were made to the facade?
Originally, the first floor was filled with administrative offices. If you looked in the windows, you didn’t see exhibits; you saw museum staff in their cubes. It didn’t look very fun for visitors. Plus, the outside of the building wasn’t really integrated with street activity.

We moved administration to the back of the building, and now we’re pretty much invisible. And we’ve added this beautiful, white, glass-walled structure to the front of the building that serves as a kind of four-story display case. Now when you’re on the street, you look in and see all kinds of activity, including kids scaling a climbing tower and coming down slides. The design allows us to showcase the play and learning that’s happening inside.

How did MSR’s approach to the architecture align with the exhibit design?
Our exhibit fabrication teams worked very closely with MSR and the building contractor to integrate and coordinate the infrastructure for the exhibits. Take the car wash, for example, where kids can play with soap, bubbles, water, and sponges. The architects had to think about moisture, vapor barriers, and drainage, because water’s flowing through it every day. Similarly, with our laser maze, certain technical elements had to be in place. Very few of the galleries are just a white box like you’d find in an art museum.

We also wanted to plan for flexibility. In the Our World exhibit, for example, the architects designed the neighborhood the kids explore with simple scaffolding so that things can change: Maybe the fire truck becomes something else someday, or maybe the hardware store becomes a dentist’s office where kids can play. We designed for change within the galleries themselves, and there was an infrastructure layer to that thinking.

How did child learning principles inform the architecture?
Hmmm, in small ways. The design is as much about accommodating families as it is about child learning. We have double railings—a lower railing for children, a higher one for adults—because that’s something that says, “Hey, we’re thinking of you.” We have stroller parking, comfort rooms, and areas of calm and quiet where individuals can retreat to when they need a break. Not every museum has to think about these things; we do, because that’s who our visitors are. The architecture is a response.

You added more gallery space without expanding the footprint. How?
We used to have a rooftop gallery—a seasonal space, obviously, given our Minnesota winters. Because most of our visitors come in the winter and spring, when it’s difficult to be outside with kids, we ended up taking back some of that area and creating the Landing, an indoor space that has some flexibility built into it. When the remaining outdoor space—Tip Top Terrace—is open in the spring, summer, and fall, the Landing becomes more of a pass-through area. We have these great chairs that spin—adults and kids love them. In winter, when Tip Top Terrace is closed, we activate the Landing and create more of a learning experience there.

Do you have a favorite spot?
My favorite is Sprouts, our space for the littlest people. It’s got this beautiful natural wood—a lot of apple ply and birch ply—and this simple, almost Scandinavian feeling. The dichroic film on the windows softens the light but also casts patches of colors across the floor and on the kids and on the water tables. Even with a lot of kids in the space, there’s something about it that makes you go “ahhhhh.” You pause and relax a little bit, because it’s just beautiful.