Out of Bankruptcy, The Please Touch Museum Struggles to Remain Relevant After 40 Years

Children’s feet clatter excitedly on the stone steps as the parents’ feet try to keep up. Crowds of them flock to the front door awaiting anxiously the chance to observe the wonders within with their own eyes, and their own hands. Philadelphia’s Please Touch Museum celebrated its 40th anniversary this past weekend, and with nostalgia came uncertainty as the establishment reflects on its future after bankruptcy.

To commemorate their achievement, the Museum hosted an all-day event featuring a visit from Philadelphia mayor Jim Kenney, live music performances, showcases of pieces from the museum’s history, and hands-on activities for the kids.

“To be honest it felt less like an anniversary and more like a new beginning,” said Barry Becker, the museum’s chief of staff. “Not a lot of people get to hit the reset button like we did.”

The early 1980s were the museum’s formative years, but after nearly a quarter century nestled in Center City, the attraction was being choked and needed room to expand. After scouting for a new home in places like Penn’s Landing, the museum finally settled on Fairmount Park’s massive Monument Hall eight years ago.

Settling there became an expensive endeavor. A combination of high utility fees, higher renovation costs, and a disappointingly low resale price of their former Center City building culminated in a $60 million deficit, which drove the staff to declare bankruptcy in early 2015.

“I honestly didn’t think we would make it. It still feels more miraculous than anything else,” said Executive Assistant Liz Daly.

The incident brought massive amounts of media attention, through which the museum could make its plight know to the city. Through a network of donors and some breaks from museum creditors, the group were able to decrease their $60 million debt to a payment of just over $11 million this past March.

Though the Please Touch Museum managed to overcome a significant hurdle, it still faces other problems to keep surviving. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Philadelphia is home to just over 1.5 million people as of July 2015, seven percent of which sits below the under-five age group, very near the limit of the museum’s target audience. The number of children in said group, however, is growing.

Furthermore, though the museum is now considered by the staff to be a city institution, it still needs a plan to mitigate its operating losses.

“Our CEO, Patricia Wellenbach, is actually touring other museums across the country right now to gain some inspiration,” Becker said. “She wants to try to reinvent the museum into a more modern and less passive experience.”

Becker envisions the museum as a center for early childhood education as opposed to “a line in a tourism brochure.” The staff plans on increasing their target age cap from seven to 11-12 to draw from more of the population. The museum also plans to broaden its Spanish language accessibility.

Though the museum is steeped very much in tradition, there are also plans to include more digital and electronic exhibits throughout the space to appeal to the modern technological age.

“We really love the way the museum has been sort of a disconnected zone for kids and their parents where they weren’t distracted by their phones or their outside lives. Welcoming technology into the exhibits is really our only way forward at this point,” said Daly.

With these changes coming the Please Touch Museum hopes to remain relevant to today’s technological age and become a stepping stone in childhood development.

“I think we’re all still really nervous about the future, but if anything the bankruptcy struggle and the anniversary says, to me at least, that the city cares about us,” Becker said.

The Please Touch Museum has been through 40 years of entertaining and educating Philadelphia’s children, and this past Sunday marks a new beginning for everyone involved. With their new plan underway, the museum hopes for many more years of bringing children up their stone steps.

 

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