Last Friday the Express-News broke the story that the San Antonio Children’s Museum had received $20 million from Charles Butt, CEO and chairman of H-E-B, to build a new facility on Broadway in Alamo Heights. Butt’s gift provides almost half of the $45 million needed to construct the new complex that will almost double the museum’s size, from 40,000 to 70,000 square feet. While the new project will enhance the cultural corridor, adding to the offerings that include the Witte Museum, the McNay Art Museum, and the SA Zoo, we wonder how yet another capital drive will impact the needs of existing institutions. And what sort of museum will the new project become? We asked Jim LaVilla-Havelin, the first director of the SA Children’s Museum, his thoughts on the move. He is a nationally known poet, director of Poetry Month in SA, and the Young Artist Program Director at Southwest School of Art.
“When the children’s museum opened downtown 16 years ago, it was an important statement about bringing Houston Street back,” La Villa-Havelin said. “I’m excited for the City about the move. I don’t buy the Children’s Museum as training wheels for museum going, but a good children’s museum, with good design work, develops sites for experiences that are memorable, that transform, that are creative in the best sense of that word.”
He should know. LaVilla-Havelin came to SA in 1995 after stints at the Staten Island Children’s Museum as exhibition coordinator and assistant director of the Cleveland Children’s Museum. During his tenure at both museums LaVilla-Havelin made exhibitions that challenged the viewer, young or old. At Staten Island he brought in accomplished conceptual artist Allan Wexler to assist on the design of an exhibition that travelled to other museums for 10 years. He left the SA museum only a year after it opened due to what he recalls as “board follies.” “There was disagreement on where the museum should go. Everything was installed when I got there, and it was stationary. Hopefully, the new museum’s vision will stay open, and it will change its exhibitions.”
There are many fine children’s museums across the land, in Boston, Chicago, and Indianapolis, for instance. But LaVilla-Havelin cautions that the staff should not try to answer everything for children. “We can’t provide them with experiences that are beyond the terrors and joys of actual childhood. We can only share a bit of what we remember, and what they know.” Most importantly, we should not condescend to children, nor misjudge what they like. Where the Wild Things Are, the 1963 classic by illustrator and writer Maurice Sendack, “is a great book,” said LaVilla-Havelin. “Sendack is not writing for kids, he’s writing.”