Out of bankruptcy, Please Touch Museum maps the future

Consultant Michael Kaiser has helped develop new plan

Patricia Wellenbach, president and CEO of the Please Touch Museum.

The Please Touch Museum will become more deeply involved with public, charter, and private schools; develop research into early childhood development; boost partnerships with other organizations; and figure out ways to connect with its audience through digital technology.

These new priorities for Philadelphia’s children’s museum, part of a new strategic plan developed with Michael M. Kaiser, chairman of the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the University of Maryland, come as leaders ponder the group’s relevance nearly a year after it exited bankruptcy. The Please Touch borrowed heavily to renovate its new home in Fairmount Park’s Memorial Hall, moving there in 2008, and then defaulted on the debt and filed for Chapter 11.

Perhaps most significant to children and caregivers, the museum now aims to adjust its exhibitions to reflect the changed mission.

“We will feel a little less like Disney and a little more like a place where children are really exploring all the wonderful things that will make them want to be learners the rest of their lives,” says Patricia Wellenbach, president and CEO of the Please Touch.

Fear not, lovers of fun: The 40-year-old Please Touch isn’t packing up the toys, dry-docking the boats in its miniature river, or mothballing the carousel. The shift is about adjusting the “balance of the substance with the sizzle,” says Wellenbach. “What the plan outlines and the future holds for us is to continue to create opportunities for self-directed play for children that incorporate subtle elements that further engage the child and parent, caregiver, and teachers in the experience and learning. Think about it as fun with focus.”

By way of example, the popular River Adventure water play area might be augmented “to teach children about transportation, about climate change, and in this city the role that having two rivers played in commerce and moving things for centuries,” Wellenbach says.

Says Kaiser: “It’s not didactic education. It’s not like people are going to read the Encyclopaedia Britannica. But there should be content in the activities, and for the parents that is important. It is also fundable.”

The funding piece is critical. The museum is not planning to pay for the new elements of the plan through a comprehensive fund-raising campaign, but by seeking financial support from foundations, corporations, individuals, and government sources for each individual initiative. It will require credibility – a credibility strained by the bankruptcy, and also by an earlier failed attempt to move the museum from its spot near the Franklin Institute to Penn’s Landing. Those plans ended up costing the museum $10 million.

“There is certainly a rocky history to overcome in terms of people’s perceptions,” says Kaiser, “but they have emerged from bankruptcy, and so it’s about building exciting programming and attracting a donor base. The institution is beloved.”

The new strategic plan identifies past failures. The museum “has not demonstrated a tangible value proposition to the community,” the plan states. “It has a mission in transition, it lacks a long-term program or exhibit plan, and the marketing efforts are not focused and strategic. Further, it has historically had limited development efforts.”

The plan poses a challenge: “What would be required for Please Touch Museum to become a leader in children’s museums?” Among other changes, the museum will:

- Develop a three-year exhibition plan with one major highlight each season.

- Host a biannual symposium focused on early childhood learning and development, with lectures and research presentations, workshops for parents and teachers, and meetings with leaders of other children’s museums.

- Establish a research council to evaluate current research and proposed research projects, as well as solicit research project concepts from potential partners.

- Inaugurate a new structure of donor groups, with new incentives and giving levels. As of Thursday, the museum increased its board to 13 members from just seven.

Kaiser says the Please Touch has a strong asset in Wellenbach, who took over the museum nearly a year ago. “She’s smart and really has the respect of the funding community, and she is very clear about what she wants to do but is also collaborative," Kaiser said. "I think she is going to transform that organization and be a great role model for the community.”

In a city that suffers from poverty and an enormously challenged public school system, Please Touch is eager to step in where it can. Says Wellenbach: “We have to be a part of that solution. We’re not all of it, but we have a role to play.”