August 11, 2021   |   By Robert Nott

The way Hannah Hausman and Caitlin Brodsky were cavorting about the grass at the Santa Fe Children’s Museum on Tuesday afternoon, you would have thought they were a few kids waiting for the place to reopen after a year and a half of closure.

And in a way, they were. Hausman, director of the 36-year-old institution, and Brodsky, chairwoman of the museum’s board of directors, were celebrating the fact the facility reopens to museum members Wednesday and to the general public Aug. 18.

Norma Flores and Asis Gonzalez, both of the Santa Fe Children’s Museum, move Tuesday the tank of Cornelius the corn snake. Santa Fe Children’s Museum is poised to reopen to the public Aug. 18th. (Photo by Luis Sánchez Saturno/The New Mexican)

Looking over the inviting sand pit, interactive displays and organic gardens awaiting the attention of the kiddos, Brodsky said she was developing goosebumps.

“I have no doubt the kids are going to return,” she said as staff members busied themselves with setting up socially distanced exhibits, play and learning spaces and checking in with the museum’s reptiles to see if they are ready for visitors.

Nearby, New Mexico Youth Conservation Corps volunteer Sarah Haghi, who helps young kids learn to garden at the museum, said having the energy of the children will “bring it alive.”

Much beloved by parents and children — a combination of playground, learning space and interactive museum — the excitement at the museum was palpable. That was true even for its new lizard, Fafnir, whose eyes lit up as he watched the preparations play out from the safety of a staff member’s hand.

And no wonder. The coronavirus shut down a lot of options for parents wanting their children to learn and grow and connect. Most switched to distance learning modes to do schoolwork.

Brodsky, who came to the museum as a kid and who now has two children who visit it regularly, said those families are still wrestling with “a loss of connection.”

“COVID wiped that out,” she added. The museum, she said, can help restore a sense of attachment.

Nicole Ault said she can’t wait to bring her 6-year-old son Jackson back. He was one of about 600 children from ages 3 to 8 who took part in a summer camp program outdoors at the museum.

She said museum leaders were “cautious and diligent with safety practices,” such as mandatory mask-wearing and social distancing. That, she said, helped bring “a level of comfort in bringing him back” next week.

“It’s a place he has grown up in,” she said.

It’s also a place where kids learned scientific concepts while playing with magnets, creating huge bubbles and tinkering with a kinetic water fountain, said Leona Hillary, the museum’s education director.

When it comes to attractions, some of old favorites may be gone — the dress-up costume area, the face painting station — in the name of protection.

On the other hand, there’s a fresh garden, new murals and Fafnir to entertain visitors.

Masks will remain mandatory, even outdoors, Hausman said. Hand-sanitizing stations are now set up around the museum, too. The facility is not planning to require patrons to provide a proof of vaccination or constant testing. For the time being, most activities will be held outside.

But with the virus again on the move, Hausman said she is aware the museum may have to shut down again for safety reasons if things don’t get better.

“If the variant infection numbers go up, we will close and reopen again when we can,” she said.

The virus did not stop the museum from running the summer camp, offering virtual field tours and providing garden-grown food for hungry families and Grab and Grow kits to children.

Still, the operation had to be cut back and employees were laid off. Before the virus, the museum employed more than 20 people, Hausman said. Now there are fewer than 10. And the museum will only be open four days a week; before COVID-19, it was open every day.

Gaby Quezada, front, and Sarah Haghi, with the Santa Fe Children’s Museum, harvest vegetables from the facility’s garden Tuesday.
Photos by Luis Sánchez Saturno/The New Mexican)

The museum hit a rocky financial spot nearly a decade ago, announcing it needed $200,000 to stay afloat. Over time, donors came forth to patch up the funding gap, but only after the museum cut some staff and temporarily closed.

Hausman said an aggressive fundraising campaign, coupled with successful grant requests for federal, state and county money, have put the museum in a place where it can plan an elaborate outdoor renovation.

She said in 2020 more than $200,000 was raised from foundations, grants and private sources.

“If there was a grant available, I applied for it,” she said.

This autumn, the museum will begin a phased-in project to renovate its outdoor area, adding 28 new exhibits, a music performance space and a “hill play” area, plus a new outdoor classroom.

“There’s a special charm about this museum,” Brodsky said. “There’s a sense of entering this magic environment when you walk through the doors, whether you are six or 60.”