The Bronx Children’s Museum, after operating as a “with or without walls” museum for almost two decades, has finally settled into a permanent home along the Harlem River and will open to the public on Saturday, Dec. 3.
The 13,800-square-foot space, located in an abandoned 1930s powerhouse for the Bronx Terminal Market, beckons families to play and learn through art, dramatic role-play, and scientific exploration.
Community artists like Charles George Esperanza and Andre Trenier helped design and build exhibits, which are organized by three content areas: early learners, natural sciences, and community arts.
Kids 3 and under are invited into The Nest, a play area where they can jump around to enhance their motor skills, sit on colorful plush chairs and read picture books. They can also learn how seasons change through an exhibit that imitates the sounds of each season as they walk through it.
“It’s so compelling, it grabs your eyes the moment you walk in,” said Janie Richards, a tour guide at the museum.
Another exhibit, The Waterways, features a water mural and a 30-foot-long water table designed to mimic the different waterways in the Bronx – the Harlem River, the Bronx River and Orchard Beach. Kids can build bridges and dams to control the water flow, sail toy boats up and down the makeshift river, and engage in a lot of sensory play – all within sight of the Harlem River just outside the window.
Mona, another tour guide, thinks that it’s vital for kids to “feel a connection to water” and can’t wait to see the reactions of young visitors and their families. “It’s gonna be fun! I’m enjoying it,” she said.
While different, the exhibits each symbolize a part of the Bronx and teach kids to take pride in their unique community.
“We hope we inspire kids to become stewards of the Bronx,” explained Natalie Wood, an artist at the museum for the past 11 years when it was in its mobile phase and operated the Museum on the Go program wherein a bus hosting traveling exhibits visited schools, parades, and festivals among other places. She now oversees art and exhibit programming at the museum.
The rainbow-colored Casita exhibit is one of Wood’s favorites and promises to be a crowd pleaser. Brought to life by Charles Esperanza, the tiny open house has a porch that can be used for storytime. The casita’s inside is decorated with images of notable community members and also offers an array of musical instruments that kids can play.
“I think it is really powerful and a beautiful example of how art brings children and the community together,” Wood said.
The Casita is nestled inside a kid-sized community block with a bodega, a Caribbean restaurant, a recording studio and a pet vet— all designed by Esperanza. The design is strongly influenced by kids who have worked with Esperanza during the Art Builds Community workshops since 2019. For example, its roof is inspired by a child’s artwork of popsicle sticks.
Meet the artists
The museum started an Art Builds Community program curated by Natalie Wood where nine contemporary artists who created the new installations shared their artwork with kids from the Little Friends of the Museum program and held workshops where they taught youngsters to create prototypes of their work. Many of them will continue to hold teaching sessions and workshops at the museum once it opens.
Duane Bailey-Castro is a photographer whose aerial photograph of the museum with the backdrop of the Harlem River is a gem in the new exhibit. He’s one of the artists involved in this art initiative.
Charles George Esperanza is a painter and illustrator of picture books. He has painted The Boogie Down Block and also created The Casita exhibit, He hopes his work at the museum will foster children’s love for culture and art. “It makes me happy anytime I see that I’m teaching them something new. I feel like I’m fulfilling my purpose in this world,” Esperanza said.
Other fun activities at the museum include observing live animals like turtles, fishes and snakes in their enclosures and learning how to make beaver lodges in The Woods exhibit.
“We’ve been working tirelessly for 20 years to make this happen,” said Nicole Wallace, the museum’s director of education and public engagement. The $16 million project was expected to be completed in 2017 but construction delays and the pandemic halted progress. It’s the first-ever children’s museum in the Bronx.
Since a high proportion of Bronx children attend Title I-funded public schools that struggle to provide enrichment programs, Wallace hopes that youngsters in the borough can benefit from the art experiences the museum offers.
Wallace has three daughters who were born in the Bronx. For them, the museum is a home away from home.
“I offer to take them to Chuck E. Cheese, and they want to visit the museum,” Wallace said.
During the first three Saturdays in December, the museum, located at 725 Exterior Street, will be open from 10 am to 1 pm and 2 pm to 5 pm. Admission is free during the museum’s opening period, but reservations will be required. After that, tickets will be available on the website.