Photo by Joe Boyle
Programs have been offered virtually as the Oak Lawn Children's Museum has received assistance from local businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic.
By Dermot Connolly
The Children’s Museum in Oak Lawn was unable to reopen a month ago, as planned, with the lifting of stay-at-home orders related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
But it is now available reopening for private parties while museum directors are appealing to state officials to reconsider the rules that treat museums with interactive exhibits differently.
“ We had planned for a July 9 reopening, when most Illinois museums were allowed to do so,” said Adam Woodworth, executive director of the popular Oak Lawn attraction at 5100 Museum Drive.
But he said all 17 children’s museums in the state are in a similar position — unable to open because their interactive exhibits are not “no touch” — the only kind permitted due to the ongoing pandemic.
“ As a children’s museum with interactive exhibits, it is hard to make them ‘no touch,’ but we are making the displays COVID-safe,” said Woodworth. “We are redesigning as many displays as possible to make them ‘lower touch.’"
“ We took all the sand tables out. It would be impossible to make them low-touch. So we were able to create more space to allow for social distancing,” he added.
The executive director said the Marketplace area of the museum has also been redesigned to make social distancing possible.
But Woodworth said he and the directors of the other children’s museums believe state rulings that prevent them from opening, while gaming arcades are allowed, is unfair. The Association of Children’s Museums have appealed to the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity to reconsider the regulations.
“ We want to be considered like video gaming arcades,” said Woodworth. “Why is it safer to play the games at Haunted Trails (in Burbank) than visit the exhibits here?” he wondered.
While that issue is being worked out, effective Aug. 15, the Children’s Museum will be available to rent for private events, such as birthday parties, following the state’s guidelines for meetings and social events. For the museum, this means that everyone over the age 2 will be required to wear a mask; every guest and employee will be temperature checked prior to entering the museum; social distancing must continue to be the norm with some areas having limits on the number of people in them and the total number of people allowed at events cannot exceed 50.
“Given that with a private rental everyone is invited by the host, by and large everyone knows each other,” said Woodworth. “Often times it is family. We believe that there is a space for us within the state guidelines to serve families with their social event and provide educational value to the children at their event. If families can hold their events at a Haunted Trails or Dave & Busters where there is entertainment value, then surely there must be a space for the Children’s Museum in Oak Lawn to do the same providing both entertainment and educational value.”
The financial strain on the museum is continuing, along with the closure that began in March. For income, without admission fees, the museum is relying on donations and purchases made from its online store. Annual membership fees are also being accepted, but the year will not begin until the museum reopens so members will not lose out on anything. Current memberships will continue to be extended as well.
“ We are still getting donations. People have been very generous,” said Woodworth.
He said the occasional sales made from the museum’s online store, which offers a lot of educational toys have also been helpful.
“ Sales haven’t been breaking any records but people do come to us for gifts,” he said.
“ We’re also looking at doing a virtual running event,” he added. “Hopefully, we will be able to host private parties again soon. They are easier to regulate in times like this because everyone knows each other.”
With schools reopening with mainly remote learning, Woodworth said some parents are considering setting up “learning pods” for small groups of students. He suggested that the museum could help with that aspect of education as well.
Woodworth said it looks like the children’s museum in Champaign might be closing, and the Association of Children’s Museums is estimating that if this goes on too much longer, 30 percent of them will have to close.
“ In Oak Lawn, I think we are in as good of shape as we can be. I think we will survive this thing. Our board is determined that the organization will survive. But we will need to build up our cash reserves again. We won’t be able to do as much as we were able to,” Woodworth said.
“ I hope there is room for children’s museums. We are here for learning and family togetherness,” he said. Anyone interested in using the museum as a resource for setting up learning pods may contact Woodworth at email@example.com.