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Expansion, changes planned for Whatcom Museum’s Family Interactive Gallery

Matilda Oakes, left and Jack Miles, both 17 months, dance in the Illumination Room at the Family Interactive Gallery in the Whatcom Museum Lightcatcher building in Bellingham Thursday, May 28, 2015. The FIG will be undergoing chances in August.
Matilda Oakes, left and Jack Miles, both 17 months, dance in the Illumination Room at the Family Interactive Gallery in the Whatcom Museum Lightcatcher building in Bellingham Thursday, May 28, 2015. The FIG will be undergoing chances in August. The Bellingham Herald

The hands-on learning space for kids inside Whatcom Museum’s Lightcatcher building is in line for a tune-up and an expansion, and the public is asked to share their thoughts on both.

“We’ve run out of space in here,” said Carrie Brooks, lead educator and operations manager for the museum’s Family Interactive Gallery, better known as FIG. “We’re pretty crowded and we’re pretty busy.”

A special open house will be held 10 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. Tuesday, June 2, at FIG, 250 Flora St., so people can tour the FIG exhibits, jot down their ideas and comments, and see conceptual floor plans for a proposed expansion. The open house is for adults; FIG will not have activities for children on Tuesday.

Afterward, from 5 to 5:30 people can enjoy refreshments with museum staff at Old City Hall along with a short presentation by FIG designer Larry Ackerley, of Seattle.

Some 2,000 or more people visit FIG each month, making it the most heavily used part of the museum. That includes about 200 low-income families with special discounted access.

To accommodate more people and to better serve older children, the museum wants to add a second floor to FIG. The existing FIG space has an extra-high ceiling because when the Lightcatcher was built, there wasn’t enough money to finish the second level, said Christina Claassen, the museum’s marketing and public relations manager.

Construction costs are preliminary but could top $300,000, she said, with none of the money coming from city funds.

The plan is to keep the existing FIG space for preschoolers and to use the new second level for children in kindergarten to fifth grade, and for classes, Claassen said. Construction likely won’t start for a year and a half, but some new and “refreshed” exhibits in the current FIG space will appear this summer and fall, she said.

Both levels will sharpen their focus on activities tied to concepts from science technology, engineering and mathematics — known as STEM in education parlance. At FIG, they have added an “a” for “art” for its “Full STEAM Ahead” program that provides two hours of special activities for children, usually on Fridays or Saturdays.

For example, Brooks said, children might make a pendulum stand to hold a capped bottle on a string. Bottles with different colors of paint are then swung to create paintings, varying with the different combinations of colors and with different lengths of string. Or, children might figure out how to make various materials fly; on and beyond simple paper airplanes.

FIG has already revised its exhibits and activities since it opened in November 2009, but Brooks wants to make sure its current and new spaces are well-coordinated with schools’ STEM curricula.

She already has been talking to local educators and now wants members of the public to have their say on Tuesday.

“We’re trying to get as many people here as possible,” she said.

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