After 40 years — and a near-death experience — Please Touch Museum celebrates and reflects

Philly's Please Touch Museum will celebrate it's 40th anniversary Sunday. (Emma Lee/WHYY

Philly's Please Touch Museum will celebrate it's 40th anniversary Sunday. (Emma Lee/WHYY

Back in the mid-1970s — as the legend goes — a group of artists and educators was trying to dream up a name for a new, kid-focused museum in Philadelphia.

The obvious choice — “Philadelphia Children’s Museum” — wasn’t resonating. Besides, said Nancy Kolb, it sounded “like a place where you might find stuffed children.”

Someone jotted the words “Please Touch” on a scrap of paper.

“I have no idea who wrote it down on a piece of paper, but I’m forever in their debt,” said Kolb.

By now the Please Touch Museum — which Kolb helmed from 1988 to 2008 — has become a city institution. On Sunday, it will celebrate its 40th birthday with a ceremonies including remarks from Mayor Jim Kenney, a 40 percent museum discount for visitors, and a collection of toys from each of the past four decades.

It will be a celebration not just of endurance, but of survival.

That’s because over the past year Please Touch has gone through a financial saga that threatened to sink it. The troubles stemmed from its 2008 move to Memorial Hall — a massive, old building in West Fairmount Park. Last year, the museum filed for bankruptcy. A combination of generous donors and generous creditors helped the museum emerge from bankruptcy earlier this year — just in time for a birthday celebration that now feels more like a rebirth.

Growing painsThe brainchild of educator Portia Sperr, Please Touch began in 1976 as an exhibit housed in the Academy of Natural Sciences. Today, it bills itself as the oldest museum in the country focusing on children under 7. Guided by notions of self-discovery and free play, Please Touch quickly outgrew its incubator space, which had room for just 25 children, said current museum CEO Patricia Wellenbach.

After a brief stopover on Cherry Street, the museum landed at a building on North 21st Street in Center City in 1983. It stayed for a quarter century.

When Kolb arrived in the mid-1980s, the museum was well established and still growing. About five years into her tenure, however, yearly attendance began to plateau, she said. The space wasn’t large enough — and nearby parking wasn’t plentiful enough — to accommodate further growth.

“During that time we realized if we were going to continue to thrive we were going to have to acquire additional space,” said Kolb. “And that led to the longest odyssey ever.”

Originally the museum wanted in on a Penn’s Landing development plan that would have afforded it a prime plot of land at the end of Market Street. When that fell through, the museum’s attention turned to Memorial Hall.

Built for the 1876 World’s Fair, the city-owned building once held the Philadelphia Museum of Art. But by the turn of the millennium, it was in disrepair.

Please Touch received a $60 million bond from the Philadelphia Authority for Industrial Development to finance the move to Memorial Hall and rehab the sagging property. The new site debuted in 2008, but soon after the $60 million bet turned sour. In 2014, Please Touch defaulted on its bonds. By fall of 2015, the museum had applied for bankruptcy.

In court filings, the museum laid out the root causes of its financial misfortune. Its old location sold for “substantially less than expected,” according to a bankruptcy declaration. Meanwhile, the museum faced high utility and maintenance costs as a result of moving into a larger — and older — building. As financial troubles accumulated, donations dried up and the museum lacked the money needed to update its offerings.

Kolb has another theory: After more than a decade of probing for a new home and jostling donors, the philanthropic community had a case of Please Touch fatigue.

“I think that the funders in Philadelphia had run out of enthusiasm for the project,” said Kolb.”And I don’t blame them because we had been after them for so long.”

Donors, creditors play part in rescueThe bankruptcy case — along with the media coverage it generated — put the museum’s financial peril in stark relief and inspired a round of giving. The Please Touch Museum also got a break from creditors, among them the City of Philadelphia that accepted less than it was owed in bond payments.

“They accepted much less than the face value of the bonds,” said Kolb. “And now the future is very bright.”

In March, the museum exited bankruptcy. For the first time in years, Please Touch appears to have a clear financial path forward.

“We understand that the investment that our community at large made in us over the past year or so in helping us get our way out of this financial challenge was a call to action for the organization,” said Wellenbach. “And we’re going to deliver on that call to action.”

She has no regrets about the move to Memorial Hall.

“We’re here to stay,” Wellenbach said. “This is our home and we love it. And anyone who is in a home … there are parts that make them crazy and parts that they adore.”

Wellenbach said she wants to reimagine the museum as a place that drives innovation in early childhood education, not simply as a gallery space where children happen to learn. As she tours children’s museums across the country for ideas, she’s particularly keen on a parenting program out of Boston, though she’s mum on the details.

“Are we a museum with a capital ‘M’ that uses education programs to deliver the experience? Or are we an educational entity with a capital ‘E’ that allows the work to happen in a museum?” said Wellenbach. “And I think that we are both.”

Touching on technologyOne of the other questions for Please Touch — and all museums, really — is how to remain relevant in the age of technology. Today’s toddlers have a world of entertainment at their fingertips.

Kolb said the museum considered hanging a sign at the front of Memorial Hall upon its opening that read: “This is a technology free zone.”

“You probably couldn’t get away with that today,” she conceded.

Wellenbach knows the digital world will be part of any modern museum experience, but wants to maintain the feeling of awe that distinguishes Please Touch from all forms of online distraction.

“When you walk into Please Touch Museum, it is totally multi-sensory, totally three-dimensional,” said Wellenbach. “It’s scale, it’s space, and it’s children interacting with other children.”

For both the current CEO Wellenbach and CEO emeritus Kolb, the stress of the last quarter century has been mitigated by the joy of working every day in a space filled with happy children. Each said they like to walk the museum floor when circumstances in the adult world get particularly tough.

“It’s a part of the fabric of childhood in the city,” said Kolb of the museum. “And that’s all we ever wanted.”

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