Please Touch Museum returning after yearlong hiatus

Like children’s museums everywhere, the Please Touch Museum faces unique challenges to staying sanitized during a pandemic.

Children playing in the water play area at Philadelphia's Please Touch Museum

Children enjoy the water play area at Philadelphia's Please Touch Museum. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

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The Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia will reopen on April 22, after having been closed for over a year due to the pandemic. Paying members of the hands-on children’s museum will be able to return two weeks before that on April 8.

The museum will be open four days a week, Thursday through Sunday. The hours will be limited to two daily time slots, a morning session  (9 a.m. – 12 p.m.) and an afternoon session (1:30 p.m. – 4:30 p.m.), with a closure in between for cleaning. The number of visitors to the museum’s historic Memorial Hall in Fairmount Park will be limited to 600 people per session, who must register in advance.

Over the summer, Please Touch cut its staff by 75%. CEO Trish Wellenbach said the staff has been partially brought back for the reopening. She plans to gradually increase both the hours of operation and employees, with the intention of being fully open and fully staffed by next fall.

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“The great thing about being in a 100,000-square-foot building with big high ceilings and big open spaces is that you have much more flexibility in the number of people you can bring in,” Wellenbach said. “We’ll slowly ramp it up. Four days to start. You have to walk before you run. We want to get it right.”

Other museums in the Philadelphia region have reopened over the last year, in fits and starts depending on the status of COVID-19 infection rates in their respective counties. In Philadelphia, many museums opened in late summer but were told to close again in the winter as infection rates soared, then were allowed to reopen again in January.

The Please Touch Museum decided last summer to lay low for the long haul. Like children’s museums everywhere that use direct, hands-on experiences for playful learning, the Please Touch Museum faces unique challenges to staying sanitized during a pandemic. A similar museum in New Orleans attempted to reopen last summer, only to close again just three weeks later as parents were reluctant to come.

“We wanted to wait until a time when we had anticipated that there would be the availability of vaccines, and that children would be back in some capacity in classrooms,” Wellenbach said.

A new, permanent exhibition has been ready to open at Please Touch for over a year. Centennial Innovations is an attraction meant to encourage creative problem-solving and invention. It is inspired by the 1876 World’s Fair, held on the same site as Please Touch, where many seminal 19th century inventions debuted, including the typewriter, the telephone, and the modern bicycle.

The Please Touch Museum spent four years planning, designing, and building Centennial Innovations and had scheduled a ribbon-cutting for April 6 of last year. The pandemic forced them to mothball it for 12 months.

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“It’s a remarkable 5,000-square-foot exploration that is based around this question: If you could change the world, what would you invent, discover, create? Who would you become? What would a new world look like?” Wellenbach said. “I think that question is more relevant now than ever.”

The Please Touch Museum has been asking itself those questions for a year, now. While its primary function has been closed for a year, Wellenbach has been thinking critically about the organization’s mission and operations.

“We started in the fall with an initiative called Project Next, where we’ve been thinking about the Please Touch Museum in the future,” she said. “We’ve really come to understand and appreciate that we are the third place for learning: home, school, museum. What does that mean in a post-pandemic world?”

The strategic planning of Project Next is expected to go on for several more months as Wellenbach and her staff consider how the museum can address issues like economic inequality, food insecurity, social equity, and racial justice.

“Your children learn about these things at a very early age,” she said.

Although the pandemic put Please Touch on the proverbial ropes, with severely reduced staff and no earned income, Wellenbach said the organization is financially stable. It has twice been the beneficiary of the federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), and has raised $3 million of an ongoing $5 million fundraising campaign.

“I am proud to say that we have not touched our endowment since we closed,” Wellenbach said. “We have preserved that in the event that we do have some challenging times ahead.”

Along with Centennial Innovations, Please Touch is also debuting the Albert M. Greenfield Makerspace, essentially a workshop for small children to explore design and creation. Once they get their inventive juices flowing at Centennial Innovations, they can walk across the hall and put those ideas to work.

“Coming out of a year of social isolation and lack of engagement, kids’ confidence is not maybe as strong as it could be,” Wellenbech said. “If coming to the museum and doing work in these spaces and playing in these spaces restores their confidence and their sense of self, that is a great gift.”

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