When Marble Kids Museum leaders got the opportunity to update part of the very popular first floor Around Town exhibit, they decided not to mess around.
If they were going to shut down the space for several weeks, they were going to not only add a new piece that focuses on North Carolina farms, they also were going to update the rest of the space to include new carpeting, more seating for parents, a new stage and an expanded train table, among other changes.
Best of all, museum leaders knew that while the changes were going to be big, they couldn't be too different for the exhibit's fans, among the youngest Marbles visitors. The market, kitchen, fire truck, ambulance, convertible, veterinarian office, boat and, of course, the bus with the slide on the back are still there. It reopens officially on Saturday.
"We knew it's really important to keep all of the favorites," said Pam Hartley, vice president of exhibits and education at Marbles. "Scattered in are all these new pieces that are going to delight. It's a nice combination."
The main pieces that are missing are the treehouse with dollhouses and the cafe tables just outside the market and kitchen. New benches, however, have been added along the wall where the tables once were, allowing for kids to still "serve" their parents.
It was sponsorship of a new farm exhibit by the North Carolina Soybean Producers Association, the soybean checkoff and the North Carolina Pork Council that got all of this started.
The new On the Farm exhibit includes an actual feed bin, along with a fiberglass cow that kids can pretend to milk and a pig. Using pneumatic pipes, kids can have "feed" sucked up into the bin and then feed the animals. Along a wall is an egg run complete with plush chickens. There's a spot for a sow and her baby pigs, along with plush calves and horses.
In one corner is a garden with soybeans, corn and sweet potatoes, which kids can pretend to plant and pick. It's similar to the former garden in Around Town, but new.
On the Farm takes over the spot that was once home to the train tables. They've been moved to that old spot next to the market where the cafe tables were. Now, instead of sitting up against the wall, kids can play with them on all sides.
The new stage, which includes a window for puppets, sits against the wall where the ambulance once was. The backstage area is much smaller, but there's still space for some dress-up clothes.
Other changes: The carpeting was replaced throughout and now includes a much more visible rainbow road, a path of colored carpet squares which kind of looks like the path on Candy Land. The convertible was refurbished with new coats of paint and cushions. And there's a lot more seating for parents, including additional benches along the edges and round purple metal seating.
As I looked across the exhibit with Hartley and her colleagues, I noticed other pieces that weren't new but are now highlighted because of the changes. It definitely feels more open. Chris Alexander, director of exhibit production, told me that the goal was to make the area more open so parents could keep a better eye on their kids.
There are more big changes ahead for Around Town, though these won't require it to be shut down for weeks at a time. In the former backstage area, Marbles now has the new Ready Set School Summer Play Lab. Here, Marbles staffers will test exhibits for a new kindergarten readiness exhibit, which will open in the fall. Hartley said it will be a Marbles version of a classroom.
Also in the fall, just next to the new classroom space, Marbles will remove the cabin front porch facade and replace it with a pretend news helicopter.
And not part of Around Town, but still something for Marbles visitors to look forward to: The new Pogo restaurant is on track to open in July. Also this week, Marbles launched a much more user friendly website. (If only every other museum had their hours and admission front and center like Marbles' new website has).
Marbles will officially celebrate the grand opening of Around Town from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday. Activities all are free with admission, which is $5 per person. Kids can listen to stories, meet a farmer, make sculptures with fresh produce and dance in a Barnyard Dance Party. Pogo will have some samples out.
There will be farm equipment in the courtyard for kids to explore, games and more.
Here's the line-up of scheduled activities:
9:30 to 10 a.m.: Story Explorers: Pigs a Plenty
10 a.m. to 11 a.m.: Whole Foods: Garden Gourmet
11 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.: Meet the Farmer
11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.: Science Solvers: Egg Drop
1 p.m. to 1:30 p.m.: Meet the Farmer
1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Produce Box: Veggie Sculptures
2 p.m. to 3 p.m.: Science Solvers: Egg Drop
3:30- to 4:30 p.m. Artrageous art activities
4:30 p.m. to 5 p.m.: Barnyard Dance Party in Curiosity Square
For more about the new Around Town exhibit, check my video interview with Hartley. Marbles is at 201 E. Hargett St. in downtown Raleigh.