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Hard knock life

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Designing a museum for children is tough; you’ve got to appeal, entertain and survive hard knocks. The newly revamped Children’s Museum Tucson gave us an exclusive look at how they do it. By Gillian Drummond

Photo by Steph E Photography

Photo by Steph E Photography

There’s a problem with the uvula, and it’s causing quite a bit of head-scratching. Kids are trashing it. They stand on the tongue, grab the uvula at the back of the throat, and pull on it – a lot. Kevin Mills has gone through seven uvula upgrades in two and a half years. None of them last longer than a couple of months.

The giant mouth, and troublesome uvula, at Tucson Children's Museum. Photo by Gillian Drummond

The giant mouth, and troublesome uvula (back, at center), at Tucson Children’s Museum. Photo by Gillian Drummond

The uvula in question hangs down the back of a giant model of a mouth, one of the exhibits at Children’s Museum Tucson.  And while it’s an excellent lesson in biology, it’s also an all-too-tempting plaything. So the design team, led by director of exhibits Kevin, has adapted it, trying out tougher, more resilient materials each time. The current uvula – “state of the art”, say the staff – features a concrete core, heavy duty rubber, a vinyl hose and some of the toughest construction adhesives and sealants available on the market.

tcmnose There are similar issues with a giant nose and accompanying fake green boogers. Exhibit designers tugged on them a few times to test their strength, but they were no match for the middle school boys who use them to swing from. Eventually they were wrapped with nylon mesh to give them extra durability.

“The half joke in the industry is that you’ve got consumer grade, commercial grade, military grade, and then you’ve got children’s museum grade. They just bring this level of brutality,” says Kevin of his young customers – valuable, all of them, but uniquely difficult to cater to.

The Museum closed for a month last summer for an extensive remodel, one that not only brought in some exciting new exhibits, but allowed Kevin to stretch his interior design talents to the limit. “Michael [Luria, executive director of the museum] really gives me carte blanche. He gives me a level of trust that I can pull off some grandiose ideas,” he says.

And grandiose they were. The way he describes the museum’s new entry way is “steam punk with a heavy dose of sky”. He also calls it “tongue in cheek on the cheap.”

Photo by Gillian Drummond

The ‘steam punk’ foyer. Photo by Gillian Drummond

The front desk is made to look as if it’s floating through the sky; walls and the ceiling are painted with clouds, a hot air balloon tops a column, and there is a piece that’s built to resemble an airship. Look closely (which is difficult, as many of these pieces are high up) and you see the ‘cheap’ element to Kevin’s design. The base of the balloon is an upturned lampshade attached to a planter from Home Depot. An urn and a copper pail – also bought at DIY stores – form a piece of the airship, and the faux flares are made out of tubes. The lighting on the walls is made from sconces from Home Depot that have been retooled and added to. A clock on the wall was picked up at discount chain Stein Mart. Around the back of the front desk there are heavy duty decals stuck on to the piece, created from an image that resembles lots of old-fashioned filing drawers.

Decals on the front desk give the impression of old-fashioned filing drawers. Photo by Steph E Photography

Decals on the front desk give the impression of old-fashioned filing drawers. Photo by Steph E Photography


One of Kevin Mills’ own custom light creations. His work has appeared in boutique furniture stores and galleries nationwide. Photo courtesy of Kevin Mills

Kevin, who has a degree in industrial design, has worked on private jets for Bombardier, taught at the University of Arizona’s College of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture, and worked on exhibits at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art. He has also designed furniture and light fixtures, and exhibited his work at art galleries like Conrad Wilde and Obsidian in Tucson and, outside of Tucson, in New York, Chicago, Florida, LA, and San Francisco.

“Most of my work has to be brightly colored and antiseptic plastic,” says Kevin of his children’s museum work. He says that when it came to designing the steam punk foyer, he relished playing with tones and themes that went in another direction. “I was jumping out of bed every morning,” he laughs.


Kevin Mills. Photo by Daniela Siqueiros

Children’s museums are all about interactivity, and Tucson’s is no different. So in order to cope with kiddos’ wear and tear, the right – durable – materials need to be used. There are certain no-nos. Painted wood doesn’t last, and nor does it agree with young gums and teeth. Particle board is not their friend. “They’ve lost precious dollars with particle board,” says Kevin. He prefers the more hard-wearing MDF, which can also be easily painted to look vibrant.

Nicomia, the Mesa-based company that worked with TCM on some of its exhibits, used laminates, birch plywood and butcher block. Paints are low in VOC and finishes are waterborne as opposed to lacquer  – all the better for when little teeth chew them. “Children are extremely tough little customers. As Kevin has observed, there’s something of a mob mentality that goes on,” says Tane Clark, one of the owners of Nicomia, which has also worked on the Phoenix Children’s Museum.


A tubular air flow system, one of the new exhibits at the Tucson Children’s Museum. Photo by Steph E Photography

The Children’s Museum Tucson’s long-standing dinosaur exhibit has gone, and in its place is Investigation Station, funded by a grant from the Angel Charity for Children. Interactive machines based on science, technology, engineering and math include ‘blowers’ that keep balls in the air, a tubular airflow system, and a machine that demonstrates sound waves. Some of them cost up to $50,000 each.


Tucson Children’s Museum’s “tough little customers” applying water to slate. Photo by Steph E Photography

Next door, a new area called Wee World has art and craft activities, including the stunningly simple (but effective) exhibit of pieces of slate that children can wet with water. A play area for tots has proved popular for adults too, says Daniela Siqueiros, marketing and community relations manager. “It creates a spot for families to do something together. We see parents putting away their phones. That’s a huge accomplishment and a very happy result,” she says.


When it comes to children’s museums, the more robust the material the better. Photo by Gillian Drummond

Kevin and Daniela spend time talking to the customers – kids and their parents – and observing how they are interacting with exhibits. She does a few walk-throughs a day. “One, it lets me breathe,” she says, “and it’s nice to talk to them and see what they’re liking about the space.”

The Museum has invested a little over $1 million in its exhibits over the last three years. Membership has grown by 15% in the last year, to 2100 members, and attendance has grown by 82% in the last five years, says Daniela.

Although the results are worth it, children’s museums can be taxing for designers and technicians used to more straightforward designs and repairs, and normal wear and tear. Kevin tells of the day he met his assistant, Dave Kitchel, a man ten years his senior and a repair and handyman veteran. He had to be persuaded to take the job. When he visited for an interview, “he left trembling saying ‘I don’t think I can do this'”, says Kevin.

But along with the hard knocks come genuine rewards, says Kevin. “I’ve worked in a number of fields but this is by far the most rewarding and fulfilling. [There’s] the crazy use of unlikely materials. I’m one part sculptor as much as I am industrial designer, and there’s just so much opportunity for me to play and be creative.”

* Find the Children’s Museum Tucson at 200 S 6th Ave, Tucson. Tel: 520 792-9985.

Hear our radio feature about Children’s Museum Tucson by clicking this link and hitting the ‘listen’ button.

Born in the USA and growing fast: children’s museum facts

* The world’s first children’s museum opened in Brooklyn almost 115 years ago.

* Today, around 400 children’s museums worldwide reach more than 30 million children and families annually.

* Children’s museums exist in 25 countries and every continent but Antarctica. In 1975 there were fewer than 40 children’s museums in the United States.

* 80 new children’s museums opened between 1976 and 1990. Now there are approximately 400 located around the world and about 60 children’s museums in the planning phase. In a typical year, five new children’s museums open.

Source: Association of Children’s Museums



The Children’s Museum Tucson occupies the historic Carnegie Library building in downtown Tucson. Photo by Gillian Drummond

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