June 2021

The Moms of the MOD

By Jeanette Prather and Rhiannon Crain

What the moms of the MOD have learned from this incredibly bizarre year, has been that our small, non-profit children’s museum is, like the children who occupy it, very resilient and necessary.

The silence in the Santa Cruz Children’s Museum of Discovery (MOD) was almost deafening. For over one year the MOD sat in darkness, remembering a time when children were running through the museum playing and adults were forging relationships.

Being one of the two moms that continued to show up in hopes we could weather the storm and open our doors was no easy task. At times we brought our own children, gently reminding them about how they were some of the luckiest children in the county because they got to come into the museum while other kids did not.
In the beginning of the pandemic, it was not only hard to be at the MOD emotionally, but physically as well, since the Capitola Mall was shut and guarded as tight as Fort Knox. To get in we had to phone security, wait for them to arrive, sign a waiver, and sanitize. Those early months of the pandemic were marked with the kind of fear and care that stems from not knowing anything about anything.
Could this disease be spread by touching a pen that was touched by someone else three hours ago? Didn’t know. That fear shaped our early conversations about reopening the children’s museum as well–how could we ever hope to have happy bouncing children touching, interacting, climbing…(and did we say touching) ever again? That is the very foundation of the theory of children’s museums–touch everything to learn through play, social observation, and unbridled time for open-ended, safe, exploration with body and mind. Some didn’t make it–several children’s museums have closed permanently, in part due to pressures from the pandemic. The casualties include the Orpheum Children’s Science Museum (Champaign, IL), Children’s Museum of Richmond, Children’s Museum of the Sierra (Oakhurst, CA), Oklahoma WONDERtorium (Stillwater,OK), Valley Children’s Museum (Dublin, CA), and perhaps most shockingly, the 40-year-old Portland Children’s Museum.

Never in attendance at the same time, the moms of the MOD stayed the course and worked “as if” Santa Cruz’s children’s museum would open, applying for PPP loans and a spattering of grants made available to us in a world where so much need for the basics like food and shelter emerged in our community as the economy crashed. We’d tear apart the administration offices to rearrange them more efficiently for a post-pandemic staff turnover (like most institutions, we lost a lot of our team to relocation), all the while our children acting as assistants or insisting we take play breaks with them. They would even test out some of our new exhibits, proving that 45 minutes in the new shadow puppets area was a win, or that the good ‘ol castle people were a necessary exhibit staple, for example.

The mixture of our childrens’ laughter and the otherwise eerie background silence was a stark contrast from the noisy, jubilant, buzz that typified a normal day at the Museum in its almost seven years of existence. It felt nice to be able to witness our children continuing to enjoy the MOD, albeit at times stressful as passersby would look through the windows and wonder why there were a couple of children playing.
Most of our administrative meetings were held from our homes. And,like most busy parenting families, zoom school, screaming siblings, and the crush of trying to do more than one thing that demands your attention at once, colored the background of our calls. We would discuss behind-the-scenes bare bones items like property taxes, non-profit status updates, and EDD claims before the conversation would inevitably drift to the unknown– “When do you think we might set a date to reopen?”

The admin team at the MOD did a fantastic job of remaining hopeful and continuing our work despite all of the question marks surrounding every aspect of the return to a normal daily life. We trudged onward and upward, knowing that our part time admin members were maintaining with the intent of reestablishing the Museum for the common good and a higher purpose. “It’s always a labor of love to work at a non-profit museum, but the ambiguity of the pandemic tested our integrity to our mission like no other time before.” –Executive Director, Rhiannon Crain.

Mid-pandemic and as the county moved down through the tiered ranks, the stress morphed into something different entirely: The question of whether we could open in some capacity. A few hopeful business meetings later, Wonderland Toys decided to rally for the MOD and open its store doors for the holiday shopping season, which pulled the Museum’s otherwise quiet social media accounts out of hibernation. We had something to share with the community!

The dark silence slowly transformed into affirmations and hopes of an opening plan. The community made sure to stop into the store and relay how much they’ve missed the Museum, which was a wonderful feeling as the MOD had been wrapped up in Santa Cruz’s first official known case of COVID-19 back in early March of 2020, and had gotten taste of the public’s concern and caution where the Museum was front and center.

With the community’s positive reception of the MOD attempting an opening plan, we decided to start slowly for private playdates during the month of April. Come May 1, we’re teaming up with multiple local museums and galleries to help initiate a safe and healthy reopening for local cultural organizations impacted by the pandemic in a “Spring into Museums” campaign that will see organizations celebrating museum month with free and reduced admission to most of the counties newly reopened cultural institutions.

What the moms of the MOD have learned from this incredibly bizarre year, has been that our small, non-profit children’s museum is, like the children who occupy it, very resilient and necessary. Gone are the days of taking for granted the loud playing in the Museum while team MOD toils in the background trying to make improvements and enhance productivity. Our intentions, morals, and ethics were tested along with our entire reason for holding on to this institution the way we did. Now, looking back, we can safely say that we would do it all again in the name of the Santa Cruz Children’s Museum of Discovery.

Welcome back, Santa Cruz! We’ve missed you.

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