Julie Butcher Pezzino, executive director of the Children’s Museum and Theatre of Maine, demonstrates the exhibit “Ramp Up,” an interactive ball sculpture. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

By design, there aren’t many signs or directions telling kids what to do at the new Children’s Museum and Theatre of Maine.

Just play – and maybe even try to fly.

“We’re big on trial and error,” said Julie Butcher Pezzino, the museum’s executive director as she demonstrated the exhibition “Ramp Up,” which involves small rubber balls moving swiftly through a maze of pneumatic air tubes. “We really want kids to figure it out for themselves.”

With large open spaces and windows full of light, Maine’s newest cultural complex opens to the public at its new location at 250 Thompson’s Point Road in Portland on Thursday. Gov. Janet Mills will participate in a ribbon-cutting event at 8:30 a.m. Thursday, and the museum will welcome its first visitors later that morning. The building itself and the exhibitions within it are designed to reflect Maine’s natural environment and cultural character, with an emphasis on exploration and fun – for kids and adults – and all engineered with layers of learning to appeal to different ages and with access for all.

There’s also an old-school playground outside, with cedar castles for climbing and tree stumps to jump on.

“We want this to be a place where everybody feels they belong, regardless of age, physical ability, socioeconomic status, regardless of race or gender,” Butcher Pezzino said. “It’s designed, built and programmed for everyone.”

The lobby of the Children’s Museum and Theatre of Maine. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

The first thing visitors will notice is a burst of color from the lobby exhibition “Climb,” a translucent orange, yellow and blue standalone 3-D wall that doubles as a climbing structure, where kids can expend pent-up energy and excitement as they wait to enter a thoroughly modern black box theater or engage in STEM and art-based exhibitions. The celebration of color continues throughout the three-floor building, with murals by Maine artists Rachel Gloria Adams, Patrick Corrigan and Kevin Hawkes, and an interactive “Beautiful Blackbird” exhibition where visitors become a live-action bird avatar as they dance their way through author and illustrator Ashley Bryan’s story about finding beauty within.

Everything in the building is interactive, including a tidal touch tank in a third-floor aquatics exhibition that traces Maine’s watershed from the mountains to the sea.

“Oh my, that water is cold,” Butcher Pezzino said, as she reached her arm in a saltwater tank and plucked out a hermit crab. All the exhibitions, and the building itself, are designed to create learning experiences and be fun at the same time, she said.

The new, $15 million Children’s Museum and Theatre of Maine opens Thursday at Thompson’s Point. The building is about twice the size of its old space on Free Street. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

In shape and size, the new building is similar to the historic brick warehouses of Thompson’s Point, which was Portland’s old transportation hub. With its playful metal shingles, the contemporary complex stands out among the industrial buildings that surround Portland’s modern transportation hub. The architect, Bruner/Cott, chose exterior cladding with repeating patterns, inspired by patterns in nature, like ripples on the water, the scales of a fish and the bark of a tree.

When it opens to the public, the $15 million museum and theater will do so cautiously amid great anticipation. Visible from I-295, the approximately 30,000-square-foot building is nearly twice as large as the previous building and has been under construction since November 2019. The museum’s former home at 142 Free St., next to and now owned by the Portland Museum of Art, closed in March 2020 because of the pandemic and never reopened. When tickets to the new museum and theater became available in early June, people began buying right away, said Patricia Erikson, director of marketing. The first week is sold out, as is much of the second week. She advised people to book their time soon in anticipation of heavy demand.

In this first week, the museum will be open three days, Thursday through Saturday, at 40 percent capacity, or about 250 people at a time. It will be open four days during the second week, five days during the third week, and will move to a Tuesday-to-Sunday schedule beginning July 13. The museum and theater will use a timed-ticketing admission policy with masks mandatory for visitors age 5 and older. Masking will be recommended for 2- to 4-year-olds, but not required.

More than 200,000 visitors are expected annually when the museum begins operating at full capacity, which would double its numbers from Free Street.

People must pay to park at Thompson’s Point, and it costs $2 per hour. “We didn’t have any of our own parking on Free Street, but it’s the same cost as parking on Free Street, and you can park here all day,” Butcher Pezzino said.

Maddy’s Theatre, at the Children’s Museum and Theatre of Maine, holds an audience of about 100. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

For many people, a certain highlight of the new building is Maddy’s Theatre, named for the mother of Maddy Corson of Yarmouth, the honorary chair of the $15 million capital campaign that paid for the new complex. Corson named the theater in honor of her namesake mother, who died when Corson was just 11 days old, and got the theater’s first standing ovation during a preview event last week when she proclaimed from the stage, “Maddy Theatre has come home to Thompson’s Point.”

The Children’s Theatre of Maine is the oldest continuously operating children’s theater in the country and will celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2023. When the children’s theater merged with the children’s museum in 2008, it moved into the basement of the Free Street building – an inadequate space, Butcher Pezzino said. A large part of the decision to seek a new building was motivated by the desire to better accommodate the theater program, she said. Photos from throughout the history of the theater are displayed on a wall in the small lobby, draping the modern space in a century of legacy.

The theater includes 89 fixed seats, with room for about 100. In addition to an up-to-date tech booth, the theater is equipped with a soundproof viewing gallery for families or groups with crying children or for those who experience audio or visual sensitivities. The sound from the stage can be heard in the soundproof room, but sounds from within the room are contained. There’s a thrust stage, dressing room and lobby space. The theater will present plays with both professional actors, and youth ensembles who are trained in acting and performance at the theater. The summer season will include three plays, each performed by a single professional actor. The youth season will roll out in the fall, and the theater will be available for rent to community groups.

Prominently situated on the first floor and visible from the main entrance, Maddy’s Theatre opens its inaugural summer season Friday with the one-person play “Balloonacy” starring professional actor Erica Murphy. Reba Askari is the theater’s artistic director.

The rest of the action is upstairs on floors two and three, where visitors can dive in hands-on and elbow-deep or simply stand back and watch the activity of their surroundings. The second floor, which includes the Lunder Arts and Culture Gallery, is dedicated to art, culture and community. The third floor houses the science-based exhibitions.

The lobster boat “Peachy” in the “Our Neighborhood” exhibit at the Children’s Museum and Theatre of Maine. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

There’s also a lot of action outside the windows, which look out to the Portland International Jetport, the Downeaster trains and modern-day transportation hub, as well as the highway and Fore River. The “Our Neighborhood” exhibition, a holdover from Free Street and expanded for the new surroundings, includes play-scale elements: a train with luggage waiting to be loaded, a lobster boat with knots to be tied (bowline, cleat hitch and square knot), and an air-traffic control tower, where actual chatter from the real-life tower, visible outside the windows, is part of the installation.

Corrigan painted the murals in the “Our Neighborhood” space, continuing his relationship with the museum that began on Free Street. An artist new to the museum is Adams, who painted two wildly geometric murals – one with hard edges mostly in red that ties in with “Ramp Up,” the other with soft edges mostly in blue, to match the vibe of the water-based “Go with the Flow” exhibition. Adams is married to painter and muralist Ryan Adams and co-created the Piece Together Project mural in Portland’s East Bayside neighborhood. The murals at the museum and theater are her first solo murals.

The museum’s “Meet Our Neighbors” rotating exhibition will showcase different communities every 18 months or so, and will open with a display by students, parents and teachers at the Korean Language School of Portland about the Korean language of Hangul and South Korean culture in Maine.

The exhibit “Beautiful Blackbird” brings to life the book of the same name by author Ashley Bryan. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Down the hall, the “Beautiful Blackbird” exhibition encourages visitors to explore the idea that black is beautiful, to encourage self-expression and to fly like a bird. The exhibition grew out of the museum and theater’s partnership last year with the Beautiful Blackbird Children’s Book Festival hosted by Portland-based Indigo Arts Alliance. It introduces Bryan, now 97, and his most-beloved book, and gives visitors the chance to become one of the birds in his story through a “call-and-response” gesture-animation installation. The birds in the book are projected on a screen, built by Maine-based Transformit Fabric Architecture, and some of the birds are activated by the dance movements of people through the gallery.

“Kids will become birds,” said Joe Goodwin, who helped program the exhibition for designer Sputnik Animation of South Portland.

Marcia Minter, executive director of Indigo Arts Alliance, curated an exhibition of contemporary artwork by illustrators inspired by Bryan, who was a longtime resident of Little Cranberry Island. The museum also partnered with Indigo to create the Makerspace Art Studio Activity area, which pays homage to Bryan and his love of stained glass and making things with found objects. Visitors are encouraged to make stained glass, sculpture and experiment with their imaginations. There’s also a maker space for families, with workbenches, more power supplies and art supplies – and a teaching kitchen, because, Butcher Pezzino said, “Food is often the best way to showcase diversity.”

The exhibit “Go With the Flow” is similar to “Ramp Up,” but uses water instead of air to move small rubber balls. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

The third floor is all about science. Butcher Pezzino said people should expect to get wet at “Go with the Flow.” Like its sister exhibit “Ramp Up,” this one also involves the movement of little rubber balls, but propelled by flows of water instead of tunnels of air. “It’s kind of the same idea, just add water,” she said. “The idea is to experiment with how water moves and the different ways it can move.”

“From the Mountains to the Sea” is a seven-tank aquarium exhibition with five freshwater and two saltwater tanks with critters like crayfish, freshwater insects, many kinds of frogs, turtles, brook trout, urchins, starfish, crabs and mussels. Book illustrator Kevin Hawkes created the artwork for the aquarium space. He followed the Maine watershed from the mountains to the sea, creating paintings from Moosehead Lake, Moxie Falls, Damariscotta, Acadia and elsewhere. The museum transferred his paintings to the walls, making them the backdrop for the aquarium tanks.

The exhibit “From the Mountains to the Sea” at the Children’s Museum and Theatre of Maine. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

The other noteworthy holdover from the former space on Free Street is the one-of-a-kind periscopic camera obscura, which sits atop the building and offers visitors a 360-degree live view of the city. The optics include the kind of mirror used in large telescopes and two precision lenses fabricated for military use. What’s new about the camera at Thompson’s Point is that people can now manipulate it, giving them control over what they choose to see in all directions.

As Butcher Pezzino demonstrated the camera’s flexibility, she spotted a plane landing at the jetport and followed its descent until it disappeared behind the trees after a safe return to earth.

“Well, there you go,” she said, stepping away from the controls with a sense of unexpected wonder. “You couldn’t do that at the old building.”


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