'Free isn't enough': New DuPage Children's Museum CEO wants everyone to feel welcome
The DuPage Children's Museum went through a lot during the tenure of its recently retired president and CEO, Sarah Orleans.
Frozen pipes in January 2015 flooded the colorful playspace at 301 N. Washington St. in Naperville, where the museum has been since 2001.
The museum temporarily relocated to Fox Valley Mall in Aurora before reopening in September 2015 in its usual place.
Then redevelopment talks began in 2017 about the 5th Avenue area near the Naperville Metra station, including the children's museum property, which is owned by the city of Naperville.
But by June 2019, officials made the decision the museum will stay.
And in the midst of that process, the 33-year-old organization began seeking its next leader, choosing President and CEO Andrea Wiles, who started last November.
Wiles comes with 13 years' experience at the Museum of Science & Industry in Chicago, serving as vice president of education and guest services.
Wiles, 54, of Highland Park, has a background as a lawyer who also worked as director of budget and tax policy for Voices for Illinois Children and as chief of strategic partnerships and information for the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services.
The Daily Herald recently sat down with Wiles to hear how she plans to lead the iconic educational space for youngsters. Here is an edited version of the conversation.
Q: Why have you shifted your career to museums?
A: It's all about advocacy. I've been very intentional about wanting to understand the world around me and to learn the language of advocacy.
At Voices for Illinois Children, I immersed myself in policy issues that impact children and families who are trying very hard to be working participants in our world, providing those basic supports that they need.
At the Museum of Science & Industry, I leveraged those networks into an iconic cultural institution that was about ready to embark on serious change and was very committed to seeing how it could have a big impact on science education. If you want to improve children and youth, you must also be thinking about the families and communities and schools.
Q: Why did you come to DuPage Children's Museum?
A: The support of the board and the work of Orleans to really get this ship pointed in the right direction attracted me. The board was able to vocalize support for building access and opportunities for children in all of our communities. And the work Orleans did to make sure the organization was focused on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and art was amazing.
Tinkering and making has become an incredible national movement for the past 10 years to give children tools to advance their creativity through lessons of failure and having space to explore. Orleans' work really put a stake in the ground around creativity and making here, which was really important.
Q: How does the museum teach the importance of play to parents?
A: For some people, play and understanding how to engage their child and access resources is much more a natural part of their nomenclature than for other parents.
Play in and of itself is extremely beneficial to brain development in children. They're literally acting as little scientists constantly to figure out the world around them, and they're doing that through testing things. Giving them space to safely test and learn from that is really important.
Q: How will the museum reach out to people who wouldn't normally access it?
A: One of the interesting lessons I learned while working at the Museum of Science & Industry is that free isn't enough to make people feel welcome. Museums in the city are required to be free 52 days of the year, and the demographics of people who attend on free days are identical to the demographics of those who attend on paid days.
It's not just a matter of giving passes, it's not just a matter of having access. It's about building a relationship with a family so they can start to see you as one of their partners in the education of their children.
There are a lot of great community partners that already work with these families. The question is what else can we do to extend the expertise that we have around play to where these families are?
Q: What's next now that the museum is staying in place?
A: Any discussion about movement is firmly in the rearview mirror. The result of those conversations has been remarkable. They resulted in a consensus about how important the DuPage Children's Museum is to the core of DuPage County and being the front door of the Naperville downtown business district.
With our building, there is some room to expand, which is something that's on the agenda to consider. Within the footprint, we could extend over the front roof and add another 11,000 square feet. This is really the time for planning, not for identifying exactly what we're going to do.
That's the joy of my coming here. We get to turn from taking care of business, like the flood, to focusing on the future and fully realizing that vision.