On an unusually warm evening in early December, a handful of Crown Heights parents and a small, diverse group of staffers of the Brooklyn Children’s Museum– some of whom have worked at the museum just a few short months; others for decades—gathered after work at a local library for a meeting.
They were frustrated. So much around them was changing—the neighborhood, the people and now, it seems, the 116-year-old Brooklyn Children’s Museum, the first children’s museum in the world, was changing too.
Over the past three months, they witnessed a significant turnover in staff. And less than a month earlier, they found out that on December 23, the free afterschool program funded by the Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD) that had been running at the museum for the past 30 years would be moving to a new location, to P.S. 189 on E. New York Avenue in neighboring Brownsville.
The program wasn’t moving because of budget cuts. It was being moved because of planned renovations to address code violations handed down from the Department of Health which mandated the children be moved out of the current space into another. Only a few years earlier, because of space issues, the program was moved into the museum’s offices. Now it appeared it would need to move again.
But according to parents and some staffers, the new off-site location was out of reach for the majority of the 75 or so elementary-aged children currently enrolled in the program. At the meeting, they questioned whether the same demographic and socio-economic changes pushing out so many of the neighborhood’s current residents now was filtering down to the children and their ability to access its cultural institutions.
They claimed the decision to move the children out of the museum instead of into another area of the newly expanded museum was the result of careless planning, facilitated in part by a new museum administration—one that had little regard for the museum’s legacy nor the working families that highly valued the free cultural access the museum provided their children over the past three decades.
“This didn’t start with the new administration; it started about ten years ago. But it has gotten to where it is very rapidly since the new administration,” said one staffer who preferred to remain anonymous.
“I think there’s been a concerted effort to not have children in the building, because they don’t feel equipped to deal with them, which is ridiculous because this is a children’s museum,” she said. “We are not the Met. We are a community institution. When you fail to consider the history and core values of the institution, you’re changing the institution to fit your image and your vision.”
Jennifer Breen, a parent who enrolled her five-year-old son in the program in September, said if management truly cared about the local families, then she should have been advised of the change at the time she enrolled. She said she learned about the move a few weeks ago from a flyer that was casually placed next to the parent sign-in sheet. Now she and her son would have to find another program after the Christmas break.
“There’s no way they didn’t already have these gears in motion in September,” said Breen. “This whole thing could have been avoided by making it known to parents at the beginning when they enrolled me and other parents like me by saying ‘This program is about to be moved; we don’t know what’s happening, and if you want to stay, fine. We will keep you in the loop about how we’re going to manage this.’”
Stephanie Wilchfort, CEO of the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, said parents were in fact sent letters about the move in late October, as soon as the administration secured the closest available location, and that the move is only temporary, which is during the construction phase.
Still, parents and some staffers question, is it really temporary or an attempt to slowly move the program out of the museum for good?
When asked when the program would be returning to the museum, Wilchfort said she could not say for sure, nor had she advised any of the parents at P.S. 189 that the afterschool program would be there only temporarily.
However, Wilchfort said, making necessary adjustments due to museum construction was not new for museum-goers, beginning four years ago with the museum’s expansion, completed in 2013. In fact, during recent roof renovations, museum-goers also were temporarily inconvenienced when they were not allowed to walk under certain areas of the museum.
She added, although she sympathizes with all of the parents, claims the museum no longer wants children in the institution are baseless and simply not true.
“We have three construction projects happening concurrently, and one of the projects is going to affect the afterschool program,” Wilchfort said. “In fact, the teen afterschool program in the museum will remain here, because it is housed in a section of the museum that will not be affected by the renovations.”
She said the Department of Health called to the museum’s attention a number of things that are an endangerment to the children’s safety, including insecure walls from water damage, exposed electrical fixtures, hazardous storage areas and, not to mention, the room’s proximity to adjacent construction projects.
“We have reviewed other spaces in the museum to move the children, and they’re not compliant with custodial care with the program. Also, the DOH requires a certain amount of square footage per child in each room and the smaller rooms would not have enough space.”
Still, some of the staffers say there are in fact larger, unoccupied spaces within the museum that were not even considered and that upper management made no attempt at collaborating with longtime staff members to come up with alternatives– for example, temporarily lowering the enrollment to keep some of the children in the smaller spaces, versus moving the program out of the museum.
“That history of serving children in an educational capacity in a museum context is a much different experience than something you can provide in a public school—even if the management in theory is coming from the museum,” said one staffer during their meeting. “Most of the current museum educators are going to have nothing to do with this new program. None of the parents and their children will be able to make it out to Brownsville. And none of the elements that make it a museum experience will exist.”
Again, Wilchfort says that is not true: “There’s really no change in the staff, no change in the curriculum; and we’re not letting anyone go around the afterschool program at all, unless they choose to leave.”
“We have received 110 applications to date (mostly from Brownsville parents). Ten percent of active families in the current program have indicated to us that they are moving to PS 189,” said Wilchfort. “We’re offering lifetime membership to the parents of our current afterschool program, and students in our current program who apply before the end of the year will receive priority for our slots [at the new location].”
In addition, Wilchfort says, the museum’s collection of 30,000 found objects from around the world is stored in portable cases, which the afterschool program will continue to use at the new location as a rotating study display. Even some of the small animals will be transported from time to time, she said.
“I have three small children myself and I know that childcare is probably the most important thing for families in NYC and beyond,” said Wilchfort. “We understand the afterschool program is greatly beloved by all, and we feel very proud about that.
“We hate to see it move as much as the parents, but it is out of our control. Rather than see it close, we’ve done all that we can to make sure it continues. It was paramount that the program continue.”
Yes, on Monday, January 4, the Brooklyn Children’s Museum’s free afterschool program will, in fact, continue. But will it eventually return to its original museum home?
One thing we know for sure, there is a group of local parents and museum staffers that will be watching closely. Another thing we know for sure: about 100 or so Brownsville youth are about to receive a culturally rich museum experience they otherwise might not have known.
CORRECTION to the article 12/30/15, 12:00pm: The article states that Brooklyn Children’s Museum President Stephanie Wilchfort has not advised parents at P.S. 189 that the program is temporary. That is incorrect. Mrs. Wilchfort has made a commitment with the school to keep the program running beyond completion of construction at the museum. The afterschool program will also return to the museum and be run as two, fully operational afterschool programs once construction is complete