Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #185. First published in the St. Cloud Times, online and in print Dec, 4, 2022

Political dust has settled. Now we can see things that have been happening, unnoticed but notable. Almost four years ago my column celebrated the Great River Children’s Museum. The context was set by two national columnists ferreting out hope in the midst of our national dysfunctions.

Conservative David Brooks found promise in “people around the country, at the local level, who are building community and weaving the social fabric” — who “want to live in right relation with others and to serve the community good.” Independent (and native Minnesotan) Tom Friedman looked to where “complex adaptive coalitions” are forged, “involving business, labor, philanthropists, social entrepreneurs, and educators.”

Brooks’s “weavers,” Friedman’s “creative adapters,” people working together – these were among us: Glen Palm, retired child and family studies department chair at SCSU, and his associates, who in 2012 formed a nonprofit; and Liberty Bank, which had recently donated its building on 7th Ave., in the heart of downtown St. Cloud.

Much has happened since that March 2019 column appeared. At a recent GRCM update luncheon I learned of inspiring progress.

The most important development is the appointment, two and a half years ago, of Cassie Miles as executive director. She is bright, energetic, equal parts clear-headed and light-hearted: “I grew up spending a lot of time at my uncle’s hobby farm and my career started at a bank in Chicago after college. I just think it's fitting that I get to walk into a building that used to house a hatchery and a bank and make plans for the structure to evolve into something entirely different and wonderful.” To take charge in July 2020 was to run headlong into the pandemic; it hardly slowed her and the board down. Demolition has opened up walls and ceilings – over 25 tons of material saved from going to landfills; six and a half tons recycled, including more than nine miles of wiring – and virtually all done by volunteers – more than a hundred, committing 11,000 hours.

They kept raising money, too. There’s now $8.2 million toward the $13.5 million goal. When they reach $10 million, construction inside the building will begin. It will be an asset to the community in countless ways – even economically. The construction funds will be spent here, and once visitors start arriving – from near and far – restaurants and shops will benefit.

Plans for the museum are shaped by weaving and adapting – by attention to the cultural and demographic realities of our area, by respect for research and what it ratifies. The website states this clearly: “From birth, children practice and develop a wide range of skills as they play, explore, discover, and learn. Play encourages critical thinking and problem solving, cross-cultural competence, creative thinking, collaboration, persistence, communication, and curiosity.”

Three features of the planning got my attention.

First is the prominence of “meeting your neighbors.” The best image of where we live is the monument, in front of the public library, of flags of the nearly one hundred nations from which citizens of our region have come. The monument is the cultural and spiritual genome of the St. Cloud area. We are so much more than the Germans and Scandinavians and Catholics and Lutherans who are often thought of as “the norm.” Traditions of more than half the United Nations are part of our heritage. Once those traditions are here, they are as American as bratwurst and lutefisk, Bach chorales and Mass.

Programming and layout of the museum are designed to animate and sustain the interchange of life stories. Placards – initially in English, Spanish, and Somali – will suggest to parents and other caregivers ways to encourage such interaction while maintaining a circle of security and safety. Exploring the new, the unfamiliar, will be enticing – not scary. As the website says, play elicits joy, builds bonds, and strengthens communities. Everyday engineering; tinker workshop; a granite quarry simulation; a model Great River where they can build dams – kids who play together stay together.

Second, the planners acknowledge how much variety there is in “children’s” – different ages and abilities. For example, the climber has a rain room for children who might not be able to climb but can experience being inside the climber. Exhibit areas have Infant and toddler spaces, and program and camp offerings will extend play-filled learning to pre-teens.

Third is the connection to nature. The building is pretty much landlocked, but some outdoor exhibits, on both floors, will remind visitors that there is a very big world out there, inviting us to enjoy it and imploring us to respect and preserve it. There will be a headwaters exhibit, with camping, fishing, and a night sky.

The Great River Children’s Museum gives us all an opportunity to be weavers and adapters. Its slogan says: Open Doors, Open Worlds! Let’s help them open those doors.

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