Children’s Museum settles into new home

When the Children’s Museum of Sonoma County first opened in 2005, it was simply a minivan toting around exhibits at public events. Founder Collette Michaud, a Petaluma resident and mother, named it Museum on the Go.

Several iterations later, including an upgrade to a larger van, donations from Sonoma County residents, and later a $1.8 million state grant, the museum recently completed phase one of its new home at 1835 West Steele Lane in Santa Rosa.

Situated on 4.2 acres, the museum has opened its art studio and birthday party room, amidst its outdoor space called Mary’s Garden. The open air site includes a simulated Russian River, with fake fish that kids can catch and release.

There are several other children’s museums dotted around California, and more than 300 total across the country, Michaud said, but what makes this one unique is the acres of outdoor space — something many other museums aimed at a children’s audience do not include.

One of the closest children’s museums is the Bay Area Discovery Museum in Sausalito, which is where Michaud was inspired to start a museum of her own. After bringing her children to that museum, she thought there might be something closer to home in the Sonoma area, but was disappointed to find nothing like it.

With a background in educational software design, Michaud liked the interactive quality of a children’s museum.

“I waited for someone else to do it but no one else did,” she said. So after attending several conferences and getting support from others starting children’s museums, she launched Museum on the Go in 2005.

Through its changes over the years, Michaud’s museum got support from people like Gordon Dow, founder of Petaluma-based dermatology biotech company Dow Pharmaceutical Sciences.

In December 2010, the museum signed a 30-year lease for two existing buildings on its 4.2 acres located adjacent to the Charles M. Schulz Museum, and Michaud and her team are working hard to get the rest of the $500,000 to finish the capital campaign (which includes the value of the land and the $1.8 million state grant).

So far, donors have been quick to step up to the plate, and the museum is getting funding and attention from corporations like Kaiser Permanente and Pacific Gas and Electric.

“What makes it special is the amount of green space and outdoor space we have, the garden area, and the ‘Russian River’ is spectacular — it looks like a real mini Russian River, and the kids love that,” Michaud said. “There are also sculptural butterflies. So, we’re special in that way.”

The community seems to think so, too. Since its June opening, the museum has served well over 15,000 people, said Michaud. Open six days a week, the museum has racked up over 1,600 annual memberships, which it sells for $90 per family per year.

‘The responses have been overwhelmingly positive,” said Kristyn Byrne, fund development manager for the museum. “Clearly the community needed it.”

Byrne is also a parent, who got involved with the museum back when it was still Museum on the Go. “It was one of the few experiences that wasn’t mind-numbing for parents.”

It’s a good opportunity for kids to have the freedom to explore, Byrne said. “There’s a great sense of freedom, because it’s entirely fenced in and gives them a chance to explore,” she explained. “For parents there’s a comfort that they are safe.”

It still has a ways to go before it’s entirely finished, however. The museum is about $500,000 short of its total $8.3 million capital campaign that it’s trying to complete before launching the next phase, which includes the indoor interactive Science and Imagination Gallery.

The gallery is expected to open in December or January, along with the “TOTtopia” center directed at pre-literacy learning and development for toddlers and their families, which is planned to open next spring.

The museum is also accessible to a wide variety of people, Byrne said. “It’s a great equalizer — you can play and learn alongside people who you don’t know if they’re rich or poor, struggle in school, have a learning disability, this is a common interest.”