Everybody loves a glimpse behind the scenes. Especially when it involves one of the most popular museums in the world. Recently, I had the opportunity to visit an area of the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis rarely seen by the public.
The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis consists of five floors of exhibits. They are well known for their ability to present content that draws the attention of all age groups. One of the current exhibits highlights pop culture and gives guests from young to old – something to point at and say “wow”. On this particular day, I’m drawn to a display of Batman items which includes the red phone from the Bat Cave. On the opposite side of the hallway, I spot a golden ticket from the Gene Wilder film Charlie & The Chocolate Factory.
While there are plenty of cool things to see and experience, a good museum always follows the old show business rule: always leave them wanting more.
In a highly secured, meticulously organized storage area sits about 90% of everything the museum owns. This space is referred to as “Collections”. While smaller museums may have a constant display with occasional rotating exhibits, most large museums are only able to display a tiny fraction of the items they possess. The Smithsonian museums for example claim they only display a mere 2 percent of their belongings.
As a large metal gate rises up and lights automatically begin to shine, it’s hard to focus your eyes in any one direction. The museum’s collection is vast and almost unbelievable. In one section, boxes of Star Wars toys that seem to go on for miles. A few shelves over, hundreds of vintage board games. There are dinosaur bones, dolls, clothes, statues, baskets, airplanes, trains and anything else you could think of – all just sitting there waiting for their chance to be seen by the public.
All told, more than 30,000 square feet of space is designated to preserving and storing all of the artifacts. It’s temperature remains constant and each item is to be handled while wearing gloves.
Chris Carron, the museum’s Director of Collections notes that toys make up a big portion of the items you’ll find on the metal shelves in these aisles simply because the museum caters to children. But, he’s quick to note that they place emphasis on collecting toys that help define generations.
“For example, here’s an atomic bomb toy that would have been produced right after WWII” Mr. Carron randomly points out. “People were hiding under their desks and didn’t know how to deal with the thought of being attacked and dealt with it in odd ways. Children literally would be throwing these atomic bomb toys at each other on the sidewalk.”
While many of the items in Collections sit on easily visible open shelves, many more are stored in massive metal closets that can be moved along a track. The attention to detail is impressive as you note the specific codes and key words underneath each item.
Some of the pieces can take on new meaning many years after they’re collected. It could be a piece of sports memorabilia or a film prop. Or, it could be something like Trump – The Game, which happened to catch my eye on a shelf. The gold colored text on the box says “It’s not whether you win or lose – but whether you win”. A phrase that means something entirely different today than it did when this game first came out in 1989.
There are also over 10,000 natural history pieces in the collection, which include bones from dinosaur digs in the western U.S. Some of the items are molds that the museum creates in order to share their discoveries with other institutions. Without any reference, it looks like a bit of a graveyard but rest assured, they know where every single bone is located and exactly where it came from.
The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis is listed as a uniquely American experience in Bill Clevlen’s latest book 100 Things To Do In America Before You Die. You can click here to order a signed copy just in time for the holidays.