In 2000 my wife and I took our first-born to a downtown San Diego warehouse that at the time was already the second home of the Children’s Museum/Museo de los Niños San Diego, which had first opened in La Jolla in 1983. The space had a low-key artsy feel, with local parents and visitors watching their children wander and draw. Our daughter and many other kids took particular delight in slapping thick strokes of paint on a truck that had seen better days.
I had heard that the museum had closed a couple years later and had lost track of it until my second-born and I pulled up a few weeks ago at the museum’s site at 200 West Island Avenue. We hadn’t expected to see an abandoned warehouse, as I had heard the museum had reopened in 2008. The warehouse was gone, but what was in its place was pretty unexpected: a large three-story building renamed The New Children’s Museum.
The airier, brighter space – environmentally sustainable, in part via many windows that admit the California sun – still manages to maintain the low-key attitude of the original facility. And the mission is an ambitious one: expose families to contemporary art in a way that’s not at all forbidding. Take the immense two-headed wooden horse parked on the ground floor. Kids are actually allowed to climb inside it once they reach a second-floor walkway leading into the horse’s body.
The horse is part of the museum’s current 11-artist Animal Art exhibit, but while the grownups will be aware of the artworks’ sometimes subtle references to the animal kingdom, your kids will mostly see chances for physical play. Case in point is a rock-climbing wall – and a well-designed one at that, easily scalable for younger kids with soft flooring beneath – that also serves as the canvas for a mural by artist Sun K. Kwak that she created by using hand-torn pieces of masking tape.
Artist Roman De Salvo’s “apex chariots” were crafted from unicycle parts and rattan and have extinct animals depicted on canvas “shields” in front, but most importantly to your kids they’re available for riding. By pumping a handle up and down, you can propel the chariot forward – or, in my case, backward, as I needed tips from a chariot-riding kid to drive the right way around the designated track.
The museum has maintained its intimate feel in part by creating several mini craft stations and studios with staff facilitating the fun. My daughter was able to color the outside of a blank CD that she was told she could keep and burn at home – a clever way to give kids some small and packable take-away. By far the most popular attraction, and as enduring in many ways as this museum, was the colorful husk of what evidently used to be a Volkswagen Beetle (the truck is gone) that kids can slap with strokes of paint as often as they like. There are plenty of paint cans and, fortunately, smocks to go around.